Run game keys Rifle’s rout of Delta
RIFLE — The reports of Rifle’s demise as a Class 3A football powerhouse have been greatly exaggerated.
With a dominating 52-27 win over Delta, the Bears made a statement Friday night.
Kellin Leigh rushed for 171 yards on 14 carries and scored on runs of 25, 80 and 29 yards to lead the Bears’ overpowering ground game. Junior Brock Clark added 183 yards on only seven carries.
The Delta loss now moves Palisade (8-1, 6-1 3A Western Slope Conference) into first place in the conference because it holds the head-to-head tiebreaker with its 28-27 win over Rifle.
The Bears (7-2, 6-1) took a 14-0 lead at the half, then erupted for 28 points in the third quarter to pull away.
Leigh, who surpassed 1,000 yards on the season, said as well as Rifle ran the ball and played defense, success still came down to not turning the ball over. The Bears had seven turnovers in their two losses this season.
“We knew we had to take care of the ball and not turn it over, and that’s what we did,” Leigh said.
Besides its unstoppable running game, Rifle’s defense turned in an equally dominating performance. Delta’s explosive sophomore running back Jonny Ponce was held to 63 yards on 24 carries.
The real key for Rifle was its pass defense. Delta quarterback Cade Gafford threw 36 times and had success throwing the ball, but the Bears pressured the junior and disrupted the Panthers’ short passing game. Gafford finished with 265 yards passing and two TDs, but he was only 8 of 18 for 69 yards in the first half.
“In week’s past we haven’t been too good against the pass, so we prepared like crazy for Delta,” Leigh said.
Senior safety Bailey Hoffmeister agreed.
“We knew Delta is a passing team, and we prepared for it,” he said. “I think we did all right tonight.”
The Bears pushed the lead to 21-0 on a spectacular 40-yard run by Hoffmeister, who weaved his way down the left sideline, dodging defenders along the way.
Delta (6-3, 5-2) got on the board on a 4-yard run by Tyler Sandoval to cut the lead to 21-6. The key play in the drive was a 40-yard pass from Gafford to Ryan Whiteside. But whenever Delta went on a long, multiple-play drive, Rifle responded with long gains on the ground and quick scores.
Two plays after Sandoval’s score, Leigh broke free on his 80-yard TD run.
In the first half, after Javier Nunez scored from 10 yards out, Zach Bare blocked a punt to give Rifle the ball at Delta’s 25. Leigh scored on the next play.
Defensively, Rifle stopped Delta twice on fourth downs, the second one tackling Whiteside at the 2-yard line after a 7-yard pass.
Whiteside finished the game with 12 receptions for 135 yards.
In the first half, Delta ran 35 plays to Rifle’s 21, but Rifle had the 14-0 lead.
Rifle continued to break off long runs through gaping holes. Clark had runs of 49, 43 and 25 yards in the first half. For the game, Rifle had nine runs of more than 20 yards.
The Bears threw only six passes and had one key hookup between quarterback Layton Sutstman and Austin Knight on the opening drive of the third quarter for 20 yards.
Delta kept the game close in the third quarter but just couldn’t keep up with Rifle.
The Panthers put together a 10-play drive, capped by a 15-yard pass from Gafford to Kory Mills to make the score 28-13. Devin Williams had a 34-yard reception to help keep the drive alive.
Rifle came back on another quick drive with Nunez scoring on a 1-yard run.
After an incomplete pass on a fourth-down fake punt by Delta, Rifle upped the lead to 35-13 on another one-play drive, with Leigh going in from 29 yards out.
Ponce scored on a 6-yard run in the fourth, then scored on a 12-yard pass in the final minute.
The loss ends Delta’s hopes for a first-ever 3A Western Slope Conference title.
In Class 3A, 16 teams will make the playoffs. Coming into the Delta game, Rifle was 15th. Delta was slotted in the No. 9 spot but will drop after the loss.
“We knew we had to win this game if we had any chance of going on,” Leigh said about making the playoffs.
Rifle wraps up the regular season at Eagle Valley, Delta hosts Steamboat Springs, and Palisade travels to Moffat County.