Tigers on playoff prowl: GJ tops Warriors, keeps chances alive
There was one reality facing the Grand Junction High School football team Friday.
The Tigers knew if they lost their homecoming game to cross-town rival Central, their chances of making the Class 5A state playoffs were all but over.
The Tigers answered accordingly, a 38-yard Tim Saro field goal with just more than six minutes remaining making the difference as they defeated the Warriors 24-21 at Stocker Stadium.
“This is a big step for our program,” Grand Junction coach Robbie Owens said of his team defeating the Southwestern Conference’s other two 5A teams, Fruita Monument and Central, this season. That should give the Tigers the conference’s top, and possibly only, spot in the 32-team playoff bracket.
Two special teams breakdowns cost the Tigers a chance to defeat Durango on the road last week. Special teams, though, were the difference Friday.
Not that there wasn’t a breakdown or two. Central scored the game’s first touchdown with 5:44 left in the first quarter. It was set up by a fake punt, with quarterback Holden Reed taking the short snap and lofting the ball to a wide-open Mike Ruble, who ran it to the Grand Junction 1-yard line. From there, running back Vandon Sanchez, filling in for Josh Buniger, who was injured in last week’s loss to Montrose, bowled over for the score.
Special teams set up the Tigers’ first score. On the ensuing kickoff, Tyler Winder raced 91 yards down the left sideline inside the Central 10.
Although the Tigers were called for an illegal block on the kickoff, they scored four plays later when quarterback Sean Rubalcaba kept the ball 21 yards around left end.
“He reads our offense and our plays different than what (backup quarterback) Andy (Willett) does,” Owens said of Rubalcaba, who was playing in only his second game after breaking his left fibula in the week prior to the first game.
Central scored on the second play of the third quarter when Sanchez took a pitch 80 yards off tackle for the score.
After Rubalcaba was intercepted on Grand Junction’s first possession of the second half, the Tigers decided to take a different approach.
“We just decided to go with Jayke (Brock),” Owens said.
The Tigers’ tailback carried 20 times in the second half, gaining 126 of his game-high 181 yards, including a 3-yard score in the third quarter to tie the game at 21-21.
“I was really tired,” Brock admitted about his touchdown run, which was his eighth carry in the 10-play drive, “but once you get the ball, that goes away.”
“We just made great adjustments up front,” Owens said of his offensive line adapting to seeing five different defensive fronts.
A fumble recovery, the third of three for Grand Junction, at the Central 19 set up Saro’s game-winning field goal.
“Our defense has played so hard,” Owens said. “We’re a lot more physical than we were last year.”
Grand Junction (3-5, 2-1 SWC) and Central (3-5, 1-2) both face tough games against Class 4A SWC opponents next week to close out the regular season. Central goes on the road to play Durango and Grand Junction is home against Montrose.
“This was a big game for me, not only for the conference but also for our program,” Owens said.