Steamboat, Rifle set to tangle | SteamboatToday.com

Steamboat, Rifle set to tangle

Luke Graham

Steamboat Springs — Despite two teams almost assuredly in the playoffs, it's not hard to find meaning in tonight's Steamboat Springs-Rifle football game. — Despite two teams almost assuredly in the playoffs, it's not hard to find meaning in tonight's Steamboat Springs-Rifle football game.

— Despite two teams almost assuredly in the playoffs, it’s not hard to find meaning in tonight’s Steamboat Springs-Rifle football game.

Locked in third place in the Western Slope League with identical 5-3 overall records, the 7 p.m. contest at Steamboat’s Gardner Field will determine who finishes third in the league.

The loser will have to travel to one of the top seeds for a playoff game and might even have to play one of Class 3A’s undefeated teams.

“It’s almost the beginning of the playoffs,” Steamboat coach Aaron Finch said about tonight’s game. “Rifle’s always a good football team. It’s a good measure of where you are. As far as putting yourself in a position to progress in the playoffs, this helps.”

After losing consecutive games to Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction Central in the middle of the year by a combined score of 66-7, Rifle has turned it around and won two of its past three games – thanks in large part to a re-emerging running game.

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On Oct. 19 against Eagle Valley, in what was essentially a game for a playoff spot, Rifle gained 356 yards rushing, including 100-yard performances from Hazen Moss and Tyler Chapman, in a 34-12 win.

The Bears didn’t even attempt a pass in the game.

“They’re one of those teams that we don’t know a lot about this year, but you know what they like to do,” Finch said. “They’re always a really solid football team, and their coaching staff gets them playing their best football at the end of the year.”

Finch said one concern the Sailors have coming into tonight will be re-learning how to defend a run-oriented team.

In its past three games, Steamboat has played teams that like to spread the ball out and run out of the spread formation set.

Rifle is a team that likes to line it up and ram the ball down an opponent’s throat, Finch said.

“The preparation has been a little more difficult after playing spread-out teams,” Finch said. “This is our first opportunity in a while to buck up and face a strong running team.”

Still, the Sailors defense has been at the top of its game recently. Last week against Glenwood Springs, the Steamboat defense was the first team of the year to slow down the Demons’ attack.

Couple the defense’s performance with an offense that at times has been explosive, and Finch said he hasn’t seen any ill effects from Oct. 19’s 25-20 loss to Glenwood Springs.

“We’re just continuing to get better,” Finch said. “The reality of that game was we made too many mistakes to beat a team like Glenwood. Good things are happening. But from a consistency standpoint, we need to improve.”

Finch said it will take a consistent effort to beat a team like Rifle. Whereas the Sailors were able to blow teams away at times earlier in the year, Finch said that won’t happen against the Bears tonight.

“It’s hard thinking it’s not going to be a battle all the way through,” Finch said. “We’re going to have to play the entire game to have a chance to win.”