Defense turns tide against Wolfpack
It was a game where the Grand Junction Gladiators defense plunked the game on their shoulders and carried it.
After dominating every opponent in the regular season, outscoring their foes 294-49, the Gladiators had few close games.
But after falling behind 3-0 and nursing a 6-3 lead through three quarters, Saturday was close and a game for defense.
“I’ll take these kinds of games any day of the week,” linebacker Keith Mikhail said with a grin. “I’m glad we had a close game. It will help us going into next week.”
The 26-3 win over Northern Colorado puts the Gladiators in position for a possible second-straight American Professional Football League II championship next Saturday.
With the offense out of sync and trotting off the field time and time again after failed third downs, it was the defense that kept Northern Colorado’s side of the scoreboard from changing.
“I said it the whole game, ‘Who’s going to step up, who’s going to rise to the occasion?’ And we all rose to the occasion,” Grand Junction defensive back Mitch Howard said.
It was Howard’s big hit that forced a fumble inside the 10-yard line to stop a Northern Colorado drive with the Gladiators holding a 12-3 lead early in the fourth quarter.
The defense shuffled players around in the game with Howard moving to outside linebacker, where he had a number of tackles and a sack. Versatile Jesse Kirstatter, a Palisade High School graduate, played safety, linebacker and defensive end in the game. He also scored a pair of touchdowns on offense.
For one of the team’s captains, middle linebacker Kyle Key, close games like this challenge a team.
“We really came together as a team. We had a couple of big fourth downs that we held them,” he said. “I think that really helped the offense out with the momentum.”
One of those fourth-down stops came after another three-and-out by the struggling Grand Junction offense in the third quarter. The Wolfpack picked up two first downs on passes of 12 and 23 yards. Then on a second-and-25 play, after a personal foul penalty, Northern Colorado had a 20-yard pass play and a three-yard run to set up a fourth-and-two from the 12.
Holding that slim 6-3 lead, it was up to the defense to squash this threat, and it did, stuffing a run up the middle for a gain of one yard.
Key, a Central High School graduate, relishes his role as captain.
“I just encourage everyone on every play. If they mess up, I try to let them know what they did wrong and encourage them to get it done on the next play,” he said.
Safety Adam Swanson has been on the Gladiators for three years, but this was his first game back since he was injured in the first game of the season. His second-quarter interception and 42-yard return set up the Gladiators’ first score.
“You have to count on your teammates to do their job, and that’s what we did,” the 2007 Palisade High graduate said.
The veteran presence of players such as Key, Swanson, Mikhail, Kirstatter and Cody Roark, who had a fumble recovery and several defended passes, was big for the Gladiators as they kept Northern Colorado out of the end zone.
“We did our job on defense, and the offense took over in the fourth quarter,” Mikhail said.
Grand Junction’s offense finally smoothed things out and scored 20 fourth-quarter points to put the game away.
Howard is a Gladiator rookie who’s looking forward to playing for the APFL2 championship next Saturday.
“It’s something I’ve never really been part of, so I’m going to cherish it,” he said.