When the Palisade High School football team needed a big play Saturday afternoon in its Class 3A state playoff game against Pueblo East, Franklin Barks answered the call.

Up 28-21, the Bulldogs needed a big play on 3rd-and-11 from the Eagles’ 29 with just a few minutes left in the game. Barks took a handoff and ran to the left tackle. He bounced out of the clutches of some defenders, found a seam and scored to ice the game at 35-21.

“It’s an awesome feeling to know that the coaches want the ball in my hands with the game on the line,” Barks said. “My team, we put in hard work day in and day out. To come out with a win like this in the playoffs is a great feeling.”

Palisade (9-2) opened the game up two touchdowns. Both teams were slow to find a rhythm, and the Bulldogs stuck with mostly short, up the middle runs that yielded just a few yards.

That was to counter the Eagles, who routinely put eight players near the line of scrimmage, sending rushers from the edge of the offensive line. In the second half, the up-the-gut runs paid off.

Tied 14-14, the Bulldogs received the second-half kickoff and Kaleb Wells took it to the Palisade 41. On the next play, running back Phallen Salvati ran up the middle and the entire defense converged on him. Somehow, Salvati emerged from the pile with a defender desperately tugging his jersey. Salvati broke away and took it 59 yards for a touchdown and a 21-14 lead.

“We knew we had to get some inside runs and early cuts. But then they changed things up and brought some heat in the middle,” Palisade coach Joe Ramunno said. “So we had to change our scheme to match that, because we’re trying to expose weaknesses and find voids.”

Quarterback Malakhi Espinosa carried the ball 14 times for 53 yards in the first half. The aforementioned adjustments allowed Barks and Rhett Ward to routinely churn out runs of five, six and seven yards in the final 24 minutes.

“We have such a great offensive line that opens up holes for us in the backfield,” Barks said. “Our offense gets better later in the game.”

Like the offense, the defense improved in the second half.

The Bulldogs don’t face many — if any — pass-first teams in the regular season, and the defense’s inexperience showed throughout the game. Receivers routinely found open spots in coverage, but a fierce pass rush, Eagles’ miscues and clutch plays softened the impact of any big gains.

Late in the fourth quarter on 3rd-and-8 at his own 49, Pueblo East (5-5) quarterback Zayden Stevens had a man who would have walked in for a touchdown.

But the freshman put a little too much behind his throw and missed his target. On the next play, the Eagles’ Brandon Atencio missed an open man on a running back pass.

The Eagles were hoping to make a late comeback and began driving downfield with just over a minute to go. Near the goal line, Stevens rolled to his left and was hounded by the Bulldogs. He threw a desperate pass into the waiting arms of Barks to cap off the win.

“I was playing outside linebacker and manned up on a guy. I saw him run an out route and started following him” Barks said. “Our pass rush got to the quarterback and he looked right at me and threw it to me. I was just in the right place at the right time.”

Palisade will now face second-seeded Lutheran (11-0). It’s a daunting task, and Ramunno knows it.

“I’m so proud of all of our guys today. But we got a big game ahead of us next week,” Ramunno said. “We’re going to have to play a perfect game to compete with them.”