PALISADE, Colo. – On a battered old football field in the shadow of breathtaking Mount Garfield, it’s business as usual for the Palisade Bulldogs.
The bone-crushing sounds of helmets colliding with shoulder pads mixed in with the forceful yet instructive voice of longtime Bulldogs’ Head Coach John Arledge fill the crisp autumn.
“We can’t give up the edges! You allow them to get to edges it’s a touchdown every time!” yells Arledge with his face plastered up against the facemask of a young defensive end.
Scenes like this are normal for fans of Palisade football, no matter who the Bulldogs are preparing for.
However, this week, perhaps the attention to detail is warranted this week as the 2nd ranked Bulldogs face their toughest test of the season against the top ranked Rifle Bears and the state’s best running back, Ryan Moeller.
Moeller has helped lead the Bears to a 5-0 record so far in 2012, with better than 1,300 yards and 20 touchdowns in just five games.
"He's so tough because not only is he fast, but he's strong as well, and that makes for a difficult matchup," said Bulldogs' senior Defensive End, Caden Woods.
Defensively, the Bears have been equally as tough, outscoring opponents 235 to 12.
“This is what we do every week, no matter the opponent, but we are aware of Rifle’s talent, they’re a fine football team,” said Arledge.
While Coach Arledge is quick to praise Rifle for their accomplishments, he is slow to talk about how impressive his Bulldogs have also been so far this 2012 season.
Palisade comes into Thursday night’s showdown undefeated, having played a tougher schedule, and boasts a staunch defense that has held opponents to just 33 points all season.
"We need to just keep getting better if we want to beat a team like Rifle," he said.
However, up I-70, Rifle Head Coach Damon Wells is quick to praise the Bulldogs and the efforts of their head coach.
"We know how much of a challenge it is to play Palisade," says Rifle Head Coach Damon Wells, "but we've prepared like crazy and our kids are ready to go."
Last season, Rifle got the best of Palisade 36-33 in what would prove to be one of the best games of the 2011 season, and gave the Bears their first WSL title since 2004.
"That game could have gone either way, and this one will probably be the same, but it's going to come down to turnovers and who stops the other on defense," said Arledge.
This season, the Bulldogs have opened up the playbook a little wider to make it more difficult for the Bears.
"We're still a running team, but we've been throwing it around a lot more to keep teams off balance," said senior QB Luke McLean.
On the Rifle side, they recognize Palisade's various threats on offense, but it's the staunch defensive line that has even the state's leading rusher concerned.
"They're probably the best defense we'll face all season before the playoffs because of their physical nature and the way they get off the line," said Moeller.
However, Coach Arledge knows college-level talent like Moeller will be hard to stop for a full 48 minutes.
"He's so good, the best way to slow him down is for our offense to dominate the ball so he can't touch it. If we do that, we win." said Arledge.
The winner of Thursday's game puts themselves in the driver's seat in the Western Slope League, while the other suffers their first loss of the season.
However, while both coaches want to win, Coach Arledge feels that a loss doesn't set them back all that far.
"Both teams are going to be in the playoffs, both teams are going to be seeded high, but we just need to get better," said Arledge.