PUEBLO (11/24/12) — With three words before the Rifle Bears rolled past Pueblo East, 56-6 Saturday to set up a 3A state championship game next week against Silver Creek, coach Damon Wells summed up what he deemed insufficient preparation for pass defense in the 48-34 quarterfinal win over Roosevelt: “It's been addressed,” Wells said succinctly.
That was an understatement. The Rough Riders passed for over 200 yards, most coming in a furious fourth-quarter comeback that had Rifle gasping to hold on for the first time in their wire-to-wire run as 3A's number one-ranked team, it appeared a weakness might be exposed as the Bears prepared to travel to pass-proficient Pueblo East for the playoff semifinals.
Junior Kurt Rode had led the Eagles to 98 points in their two playoff wins, passing for over 2200 yards and 21 touchdowns with just seven interceptions in a 10-2 Southern League championship season.
The first five times Rode dropped back to pass against the Bears in their semifinal on the Eagles' home turf, he was 0-for-3 and sacked twice by Cody Beauford for a loss of 20 yards. Meanwhile, the Bears quickly surged in front 14-0.
The first sack halted a ground-led 13-play, five minute drive by the Eagles, and after a penalty on a punt return, Rifle took over on its own 26.
With the defense understandably expecting a large dose of Ryan Moeller, who has 14 touchdowns in the Bears' three playoff games, Kellin Leigh took Rifle's first play from scrimmage and exploded for 74 yards and a score. Marco Gutierrez, who is 19-for-19 in post-season PAT's made it 7-0 Bears with 6:24 left in the first quarter.
Wells summed up the challenge for opposing defenses: “Ryan is a gifted, special player, and people think that's all we are.” Leigh and sophomore Isaac Rider,” along with quarterback Adam Rice, “are being rewarded on a stage like this,” Wells added. Leigh and Rider combined for 20 yards in two plays on the Bears' next possession with Moeller doing the rest in an abbreviated 29 yard drive set up by a 20 yard Pueblo punt. Moeller's 1-yard TD put the Bears up 14-0 with 2;37 to play in the first quarter.
Pueblo appeared to answer, when Rode completed his first pass to the Rifle 14 after Derion Ibarra, broke a 56-yard run following the kickoff. A couple more runs by Ibarra, who had 105 yards in 12 first-quarter carries, moved the ball to the eight when the quarter ended.
Facing third-and-three, Ibarra fumbled into the end zone where Bailey Hoffmeister recovered for a touchback. One play later and Rifle led 21-0 as Rice found Leigh all alone beyond the bunched up Eagle defense and the junior outran all pursuit for an 80 yard score.
The Bear defense continued to pressure Rode as he missed his first five passes in the quarter. When a penalty moved Rifle back to its nine yard line after a punt, the Bears responded with a six-play, 91-yard scoring drive that featured a 65-yard burst by Moeller to the Eagle eight. Leigh scored his third touchdown of the game from the five and Rifle led 28-0 with 6:24 to go in the half.
The Eagles' desperation resulted in a 4th down try from their own 30 that was broken up by Javier Nunez. Rifle quickly took advantage when Rice hit Moeller for a touchdown pass, but an the Bears continued to have uncharacteristic penalty problems and the score was called back due to an illegal formation. Pueblo returned the favor with a roughing penalty when Leigh attempted a halfback pass and Rice capped the flag-infested series with a 9-yard TD run, giving Rifle a 35-0 halftime lead.
Pueblo attempted an onside kick to open the second half, but Aaron Wagler recovered it at the Rifle 40. Once again the Bears used a couple of nice runs by Leigh and Rider to set up Moeller's 7 yard score for a 42-0 lead that started a running clock just two minutes into the third quarter.
Rode finally showed a glimmer of his shining season by hooking up with Alex Mestas on an 80-yard touchdown to get Pueblo on the scoreboard.
Three plays after a failed onside kick, Moeller blasted through the interior defense and ran 43 yards for his 10th rushing touchdown of the playoffs (and 41st for the season). As the third quarter quickly neared an end, Hoffmeister added to Rode's futile afternoon with an interception. Gutierrez missed a 39-yard field goal attempt, but sophomore Layton Stutsman drove the Bears to a final score, taking it in from the 11 with 3 minutes to go in the game.
Moeller, who finished with 206 yards in 15 carries, including his three touchdowns, said the Bears' impressive response to last week's quarterfinal scare “comes down to effort and preparation. We used last week as motivation, and now we get a shot at a state title.” Leigh had 185 all-purpose yards, including 3 touchdowns and 105 yards rushing in 6 attempts. Rode had just 7 completions in 21 attempts, passing for just 59 yards until the late touchdown after the running clock began. The Bears had 466 total yards to just 219 for the Eagles. Ibarra gained 170 of those (just 65 after the first quarter) on 21 carries.
Wells said he would be “happy for about ten minutes,” following the 50-point victory. “I couldn't be more proud of this team,” Wells said, but the satisfied feeling “goes away quickly if we don't get it done” next week against Silver Creek, which defeated Conifer (a 38-7 victim of Rifle's in mid-October), 24-7 to reach the championship game for the second straight season.
Last year, the Raptors (11-2, who finished second to Roosevelt in the Tri-Valley League and lost to the Rough Riders 21-14 a month ago) lost to Windsor in the finals, 14-7.
Recent State Championship Games:
2003 – Palisade 24, Florence 6
2004 – Rifle 7, Sterling 6
2005 – Florence 35, Rifle 14
2006 – Alamosa 47, Pueblo County 14
2007 – Berthoud 21, Falcon 13
2008 – Glenwood Springs 23, Fort Morgan 14
2009 – Valor Christian 41, Steamboat Springs 14
2010 – Elizabeth 29, Glenwood Springs 6
2011 – Windsor 14, Silver Creek 7