PUEBLO — With the way Cade Palmer was running all over the field, Rifle needed a new defensive game plan. What the Bears settled on was that the best defense is a good offense.
The Bears possessed the ball for all 12 minutes of the third quarter and used that ability to run the ball and convert big plays - and hope the defense can create a timely turnover - to get a 35-34 win over The Classical Academy to claim the Season C Class 3A football championship.
It was no surprise that for a Todd Casebier-led team, the Bears (7-2 overall) were going to be reliant on the running game. They are designed to sustain long drives while TCA has been much more of a quick-strike offense this season. That was obvious when Palmer a pair of long touchdown runs in the first half, the first of which gave the Titans (6-1) a quick lead.
"Cade is an amazing runner, there is no doubt about it," Bears running back Embrey Marantino said. "He's so good. He deserved this game. We just needed to wrap him up and tackle him and I don't think we did that to the best of our ability."
The Bears got on the board with some craft play calling as Gavin Peterson took a pitch from Trey Caldwell and hit Kade Bishop for a 36-yard touchdown pass.
Marantino added a rushing touchdown but Ethan Aragundi had scored as had Palmer, to send the game to halftime with TCA holding a 20-13 lead.
And that's when the Bears were unintentionally methodical and slow on offense. They chewed up nearly 10 minutes of clock before Toto Fletchall scored and Caldwell found Peterson on the 2-point conversion to give the Bears a one-point lead.
"We took care of the ball and we finished drives," Casebier said. "That's what you have to do if you're going to be a state champ."
But that wasn't good enough. The Bears saw an opening on the kickoff and went for the onside. Kicker Javier Diaz fell on it, giving the ball back to Rifle. The drive ended with a short touchdown run from Fletchall, his second of the game, giving the Bears a 28-20 lead.
On their first possession of the second half, the Titans continued to show they can move the ball and score. A big run from Palmer setup a touchdown pass from Sam Guilez to Jake Jennings. The Titans couldn't convert the 2-point conversion and still trailed by a couple of points.
Then Marantino broke free. He broke for a 70-yard touchdown run on 4th and 1 to push the lead to 35-26 with 6:15 left in the game.
Palmer got his third rushing touchdown of the day and the Titans again went for two, this time converting it to make it a one-point game. But slowing down the running game was the key.
The TCA onside kick was unsuccessful, but on 1st down the Bears opted for a deep pass rather than leaning on the running game that had been so successful.
"They were loading up so much that I thought we'd run right by them," Casebier said.
The next play was disastrous. Caldwell fumbled and suddenly the quick-strike TCA offense had the ball down one with about two minutes left.
As they moved downfield, it became evident that a big play was needed for a championship to be won. That's when Josh Avila just decided he wanted the ball. Avila ripped it away from Palmer, giving the Bears the ball and the state title.
"No emotion was going through me," Avila said. "I just had to grab the ball."
He grabbed the ball for himself, but also ripped the title out of the Titans hands and back to the Bears.