Bulldogs take flight
Late TD pass lifts Palisade past Rifle
RIFLE — It was a dogfight, and the Palisade Bulldogs came away with the victory.
Palisade, ranked second in the state in Class 3A, snatched a Western Slope Conference football victory away from top-ranked Rifle on Friday night in the final 30 seconds to remain undefeated with a 28-27 win.
Trailing 27-21, Palisade quarterback Levi Hoaglund lofted a perfect 26-yard strike to John Goff in the end zone for the winning score with 28 seconds remaining. Marques Combs drilled the extra point to give the Bulldogs the win and snap Rifle’s 25-game regular-season win streak.
“We made a couple of plays late, and that was the difference,” Palisade coach Joe Ramunno said. “We were very fortunate to come out of here with a victory. That’s a very good football team, and it was a huge win for us.”
Holding a 27-14 lead, Rifle (5-1, 4-1 3A WSC) looked to be in control in a fast-paced second half. With both teams relying on their running games, which was to be expected, the third quarter evaporated quickly with 10 runs by Rifle and 13 by Palisade (6-0, 4-0 WSC). There wasn’t one pass in the quarter, but it was the Bulldogs’ passing game that saved the game in the fourth.
After cutting the lead to 27-21 on a fourth-down, 8-yard pass from Hoaglund to Tass Crow, Rifle put its running game back to work.
The Bears moved the ball 38 yards to the Palisade 30 and appeared to be ready to run the final minutes off the clock. But Rifle fumbled, one of its many mistakes on the night. Zach Marengo, who played an outstanding game from his linebacker position, pounced on the fumble, and Palisade had a chance.
But the Bears stopped the Bulldogs and forced a punt with only 2:39 remaining.
Facing a fourth-and-19 situation, Ramunno elected to punt.
“I felt like we could get a stop,” he said. “I didn’t want to fake it, and we hadn’t had success against them going for it on fourth down.”
A holding penalty hurt the Bears on their ensuing possession, and they came up short on third down. A 40-yard punt by Brock Clark put the Bulldogs 68 yards away from a winning score with only 57 seconds remaining.
But Hoaglund needed only three passes to get the job done.
On the first play, Crow made a spectacular diving catch against the sideline for a 33-yard gain. Then, Hoaglund hit a 9-yarder to Crow. That set up the throw to Goff, which caused a delirious roar from the Palisade faithful.
In the first half, the Rifle offense was picking up big yardage with its three-back attack: Javier Nunez, Kellin Leigh and Clark, who finished with 113 yards on 16 carries.
On defense, the Bears were filling gaps and stuffing the Bulldogs’ flex-bone attack.
But mistakes haunted the Bears.
Rifle took the opening kickoff and went 64 yards on 11 plays, with Leigh scoring on a 5-yard run.
After forcing a three-and-out, the Bears made their first blunder of the game: a short punt that hit a Rifle player.
Palisade took over, and Hoaglund scored from the 1 to tie the game at 7-7.
Dalton Hannigan gave Palisade a 14-7 lead when he returned a tipped Layton Stutsman pass 15 yards for the score.
The second quarter, however, belonged to the Bears.
Rifle tied the game at 14-14 and took a 20-14 lead on runs of 8 and 26 yards by Clark.
Leigh bulled in from 2 yards out with nine seconds left before halftime to up the lead to 27-14.
One of the momentum-changing plays for Palisade came on the final play of the third quarter, when Joshua Hovis broke free on a 43-yard run to set up the Bulldogs’ third score and get them within six points.
Besides mistakes, the game came down to Palisade’s success in the passing game.
Hoaglund completed five of eight attempts for 95 yards and two scores. Stutsman had 50 yards throwing.
In a matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 2, Palisade came away with the victory.
“It was a dogfight, and there was a lot of close plays that could have gone either way, game of inches,” Marengo said of the evenly matched teams. “We just found a way to scrap and fight for everything we could get.
“We don’t care about rankings, but it’s great to beat a great team.”
For Rifle coach Damon Wells, the game came down to just too many mistakes. Rifle lost two fumbles and had two interceptions and a number of costly penalties.
“It’s a shame we couldn’t finish, but what valuable experience (for Rifle), and we’ll work like dogs to get into the playoffs,” he said.