RIFLE (11/22/14) – For the Rifle Bears, “It’s always fun to practice on Thanksgiving,” coach Damon Wells said after his team’s 35-7 semi-final win over Ft. Morgan insured the fourth trip in eleven years to the 3A state championship game.
Turkey week practices mean the Bears (12-1) are one of two teams still playing, the other being Pueblo East (10-3) after its 39-21 win at previously undefeated and number-one seed Discovery Canyon(12-1). The Eagles will host the championship game at Dutch Clark Stadium in Pueblo, Saturday, November 29.
After falling behind 14-0 by the six-minute mark of the first quarter, Ft. Morgan had several chances to get back into the game – the next 41 plays, well into the second quarter, would be run in Rifle territory, but the Bear defense stopped three 4th down tries, turning the Mustangs back twice inside the 30.
Rifle grabbed a 7-0 lead 90 seconds into the contest, covering 64 yards in four plays, including 15 yard runs from quarterback Layton Stutsman and wingback Ty Leyba, a 15-yard penalty for a late hit by the Mustangs, and finally, Brock Clark’s 24-yard scoring run around right end. Ft. Morgan’s senior quarterback, Joey Schneider, who passed for 1,000 yards this season, completed two first down tosses close to midfield. Tyler Bosshardt ended that threat, knocking the ball loose while sandwiching Schneider and the fumble was recovered by Cody Rice at the Mustang 38.
A bootleg run by Stutsman was good for a first down to the 11, and Clark did the rest on another sweep around right end for a 14-0 lead with 6:11 to go in the opening quarter.
All season, Rifle had punted a total of only nine times, never more than twice in a game, but after taking the two-score lead, the Bears had to kick on their next three possessions. Tate Kembel returned the third one 25 yards to Rifle’s 40, but the defense held again with 1:24 to go in the half.
As the half was winding down, Stutsman would complete his only two passes, 20 yards to Leyba, then Clark made a spectacular catch over two defenders for a 38-yard score with 59 seconds left.
Eduardo Sandoval’s extra point kick gave Rifle what looked like a 21-point lead heading to intermission.
However, Ft. Morgan’s 235-pound fullback, Toby McBride dragged most of the Rifle defense 12 yards, and Schneider found Eric Kembel for 26 to the Bear 35. On 4th-and-one, Rifle jumped offside, handing the Mustangs a first down at the 22. Schneider hit Isaiah Lopez, who was stopped at the one, but Tate Kembel plunged in for the score with 8 seconds left in the half to make it 21-7 at halftime.
That score and its 10-5 edge in first downs at the half seemed to give Ft. Morgan momentum going into the third quarter. Especially when McBride carried the ball four straight times to open the half, including another 12-yard run. But Austin Shepherd stopped McBride for just a yard, and two more runs netted just two more, forcing a punt.
In just three plays, Rifle went 65 yards to push the lead to 28-7. Clark went 12 yards around right end, Blaine Vance broke up the middle for 20, and finished with a 33-yard explosion into the end zone at the 7:39 mark.
The Bears had an uncharacteristic stretch of three penalties on their next possession – they had only three flags in the first two rounds of the playoffs – and in the final 3:30 of the quarter, the Mustangs put together four first downs, driving from their own 22 to the Bear 24.
On the first play of the final quarter, Austin Knight tipped Schneider’s pass and Leyba made a diving interception at the nine yard line.
Rifle ground up the next 20 plays, covering 91 yards and nearly ten-and-a-half minutes, with Stutsman scoring from the one for a 35-7 lead with just 1:27 left in the game.
“We do what we do,” Wells said after Rifle gained 328 yards on 47 carries, while Stutsman passed just three times for 58 yards. Clark had 141 yards on 21 rushes, and Vance added 97 in 13 carries. Schneider completed 13-of-30 passes for 163 yards with two interceptions.
Wells, who took the Bears to the championship round in 2012, where they lost to Silver Creek, said he was keeping his eyes on a threatening storm coming from the west in the second half. Pueblo East, which lost to Rifle 56-6 at Dutch Clark in the first round of that playoff run, will be wary of this storm from the west that is glad to be practicing once more during Thanksgiving week.
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