GRAND JUNCTION (10-15-15) – Undefeated and second-ranked Palisade met its match in a staunch Rifle Bear defense that stopped four Bulldog scoring threats on fourth downs to hold on for a 13-7 victory at Stocker Stadium Thursday in Grand Junction.

Ethan Strouse hit a couple of big passes to key scoring drives in the 2nd and 3rd quarters, and Blaine Vance did the heavy lifting with 140 yards and two rushing touchdowns, but it was Joe Kosht and the Rifle defense that was the difference.

The Bears opened the game with Vance running for three first downs and getting to the Bulldog nine yard line, but a 4th down pass fell incomplete. The Bears neutralized Palisade’s top runner, Isaac Maestas, but 17 yards on two counter plays to Tanner Pratt and a 26-yard reverse by Aries Hernandez brought up a 4th-and-one at the Rifle 29. The Bear D stuffed quarterback PD Riddle’s option play for a 2-yard loss.

Strouse lofted a pass down the right sideline on the Bears’ first play after the stop with Jacob Boone making a heads-up adjustment, coming back to make the catch for 29 yards to the Bulldog 38. After that, it was Vance carrying 5 of 6 plays and going into the end zone from two yards out. The extra point by Eduardo Ruiz put Rifle up 7-0 sixty-seven seconds into the second quarter.

Palisade attempted to answer, converting three first downs, including a reverse by Hernandez on 4th-and-6, reaching the Rifle 18 before the Bears stopped Pratt a yard short on 4th down. That insured the Bulldogs would be scoreless at halftime for the first time this season. Maestas, who had nearly 600 yards and 7 TD’s coming into the game had just 13 yards in 6 carries.

Palisade took the kickoff after intermission and put together a pair of first downs on runs by Pratt and Hernandez reaching the Bear 30. A holding penalty stalled the Bulldogs and a pass from punt formation by Maestas was incomplete on 4th down.

This time the Bears’ attempt to go deep on the first possession was picked off by Daniel McLean at the Bulldog 30, and a 27-yard completion from Riddle to Matt Sorenson once again had Palisade threatening at the Rifle 27. Pratt gained nine, Hernandez 7, and Pratt got around left end for the 11-yard touchdown. Maestas kicked the extra point to knot the score at 7 with 6:16 left in the third.

The Bears’ responded with a big pass of their own, facing 3rd and 10 on their 36. Strouse connected with Tyler Bosshardt on a perfectly thrown pass for 31 yards to the Bulldog 33. Bosshardt, last season’s leading receiver, has been the top ground-gainer for Rifle this season, but didn’t carry the ball once in the first half.

After his big catch, Bosshardt went for 7 around right end, Ty Leyba gained nine, and Vance did the rest, scoring the go-ahead TD from the four with one minute left in the quarter. The extra point kick missed, leaving the Bears vulnerable, but ahead 13-7 going into the final 12 minutes.

The Bear defense forced Palisade’s first punt of the contest on the first play of the 4th, but after Vance ran for 3 consecutive first downs, the Rifle drive failed on a 4th-and-7 pass at the Bulldog 28. With just under 8 minutes to play, Maestas finally got untracked, running for 23 yards on the first play of the possession, then 12 for another first down to the Bear 39.

Rifle, which had just two penalties in three quarters, committed their third infraction of the quarter to set up a 2nd-and-3, which Maestas converted on a five-yard pitch around right end. Palisade inexplicitly used its 2nd time out following the first down with 5:10 to go, then were flagged for motion before the defense penetrated to stop another counter play for a 3 yard loss. Riddle missed Sorenson with a pass, setting up 3rd-and-18 at the Bear 35 Riddle tried an option but with two Bears wrapping him up, threw the pitch at Pratt’s feet for a 7-yard loss. With just over 3 minutes left, the Bulldogs, facing 4th-and-25, punted into the end zone.

Rifle was unable to run out the clock, but Palisade was forced to use its final timeout. Bosshardt boomed a 44-yard punt giving Palisade one last chance with two minutes to go, 67 yards from a tying touchdown.

The Bulldogs applied the pressure immediately, rolling up a pair of first downs to the Rifle 38, with Leyba saving a TD on a 17-yard completion to Sorenson. Kosht and Gage Johnson sacked Riddle, but the quarterback again found Sorenson for a 15-yard first down pass to the Bear 25.

Following an incompletion with a minute to go, the Bears had Riddle trapped in the backfield but he scrambled free for 11 yards for another first down to Rifle’s 14. On another passing attempt, Riddle was unable to escape Johnson and Ramon Salvidrez, forcing him to spike the ball with 13 seconds left.

With no timeouts left, Palisade tried a counter to Pratt, but the Bears brought him down at the ten yard line as the game-clock expired.

With wins over Eagle Valley (5-1, 2-1) and Palisade (6-1, 3-1), the Bears (6-1, 3-1) own those tie-breakers and are in second place behind Delta (5-1, 3-0), which handed Rifle its only loss, 35-21, two weeks ago.