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Gladiators land in APFL2 championship
It was an ugly three quarters but a marvelous fourth for the Grand Junction Gladiators.
The Gladiators scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to finally subdue the Northern Colorado Wolfpack 26-3 in the American Professional Football League 2 playoffs Saturday at Stocker Stadium.
The win puts the Gladiators in the APFL2 championship game for the second straight season.
In a game where the offense was downright offensive at times, Grand Junction was in desperate need of a big play while holding onto a precarious 6-3 lead after three quarters. On the first play of the fourth quarter, facing a fourth-and-12 from the 28, the Gladiators elected to forgo a field-goal attempt. Quarterback Dustin Benton, who hadn’t completed a pass in the second half, dropped in a rainbow throw to Jesse Kirstatter, who ran a corner route for a gain of 20.
Kirstatter scored his second TD of the game on the next play, bolting through a huge hole up the middle from two yards out to give the Gladiators a 12-3 lead. Kirstatter, who was playing with a possible broken left hand suffered in the first quarter, said the design of the fourth-down play was perfect.
“Dustin threw a good ball, and it worked out for us. It was a make or break point in the game,” he said.
The Gladiators’ passing game was foul as a sewer plant for most of the game. Facing heavy pressure from a scrappy Northern Colorado defense, Benton had little time to throw and few open receivers. He finished the first half with two completions and two interceptions.
After Kirstatter scored, the Wolfpack looked set to jump right back into the game after A.J. Moosa returned the ensuing kickoff 50 yards, followed by a 20-yard run by Josh Walker.
Like they had all afternoon, the Gladiators upped the defensive pressure. Facing a third-and-goal from the 13, Moosa broke into the open field with Mitch Howard as the only obstacle to a Wolfpack score. Not only did Howard make a touchdown-saving tackle, but his hit popped the ball loose, and Cody Roark pounced on the fumble to halt the threat.
Four Tony Kemper runs later, on a third-and-eight, wide receiver and occasional running back Jimmie Dererra got his second carry of the game. The shifty, 150-pound speedster took the pitch, got a huge kick-out block by backup fullback Gabe Spallone, and he was gone. The 68-yard TD run put the Gladiators up 19-3.
“I give it all to my blockers. Gabe led me right to the hole, and bam, I’m down the sideline and I’m gone,” Dererra said.
Adam Burke busted over from a yard out in the final minute for the final score of the game.
After pasting the Wolfpack 53-0 just two weeks ago, Saturday’s game looked to be a mismatch coming in. But Northern Colorado was missing several players in that previous game, and a truer reflection of the team came in Week 2 when they lost to the Gladiators 33-23.
“Very much an ugly, grinder-type game,” head coach Matt Surad said. “We made some adjustments, and the guys kicked it into gear in the second half.”
Grand Junction’s running game sputtered for most of contest. Bruising fullback Kris Means missed the game with an injured knee, and his absence hurt the Gladiators.
Kemper didn’t find a lot of running room but finally broke free for a 32-yard run in the third quarter.
Surad said they noticed Northern Colorado’s defensive ends were not rushing up field as much as they had in the two previous games.
“We needed to figure out which running lanes to start taking advantage of, and we got that squared away at halftime,” he said.
Kemper was the workhorse and had 81 yards in the second half. He finished the game with 117 yards on 23 carries.
The Wolfpack grabbed a 3-0 lead at 6:40 of the first quarter, and the Gladiators’ offense never found much rhythm in the first half, picking up its first first down at the end of the first quarter.
Benton’s second interception, this one by Moosa, gave the Wolfpack great field position at the Gladiators’ 34. But Grand Junction safety Adam Swanson snatched the ball and the momentum back with an interception on the next play. The 2007 Palisade graduate grabbed the overthrown ball and found open territory in front of him, but he stumbled and went down after a 42-yard return.
The Gladiators put together a 45-yard drive — eight running plays — to score on a Kirstatter two-yard run to give Grand Junction a 6-3 lead.
Two plays before the TD, Kemper was heading to the end zone when he had the ball stripped, but the fumble was scooped up by center Nick Held, who hesitated before trying to plow his way to paydirt. The lineman’s dream of scoring a TD came up two yards short.
“Honestly, when I picked it up I kind of froze. I didn’t know what to do,” he said with a chuckle.
With the halftime adjustments, the offensive line started opening holes for the running game.
“A long as the offensive line does our job, we’re going to win,” Held said.
The Gladiators will be looking for their second straight APFL2 championship next Saturday with their opponent yet to be determined. The site of the championship game could be Stocker Stadium or in Denver.