AIR FORCE ACADEMY — Coming up against an explosive Palmer Ridge football team in the Class 3A state championship game, and then having a player go out early to injury who you thought was capable of providing some wrinkles, made for an uphill climb for the Erie Tigers on Saturday afternoon at Falcon Stadium.
But for the Tigers, it was a fast and furious Palmer Ridge defense and special teams unit that ultimately provided the back-breaking plays and allowed the Bears' Ty Evans to work wonders in a 46-21 victory — the first state title in the sport for the Monument-based school.
With two touchdowns in the final 1 minute, 6 seconds of the first half and another pair of scores in the third quarter just 91 seconds apart thanks to Garrett Marchetti's punt block and Andrew Miller's recovery in the end zone, Palmer Ridge was too fast and too strong for even a disciplined Tigers team.
"They were a good, physical team that deserved to win," said Erie senior lineman Cameron Marcucci. "We never felt like we were out of it and knew we could hang with these guys, but just a few things here and there made it seem a lot worse than it really was."
Evans, who opted out of his verbal commitment to the University of Arkansas this past week in light of the firing of Razorbacks coach Brett Bielema, accounted for four total touchdowns and 308 passing yards — undoubtedly proving to everybody on the field he'll be playing at the next level.
But the Bears had some great support all around, with Anthony Roberson II catching two touchdowns and Raef Ruel and Noah Brom accounting for two more rushing touchdowns. Palmer Ridge (14-0) totaled 449 yards of offense.
On the other side, Erie lost quarterback Dion Lucero to a knee injury early and that shook up what the Tigers wanted to accomplish. All week, Erie head coach Chad Cooper and his staff were looking for ways to open up the game for Noah Roper, but Lucero's injury shrunk the offensive playbook back down considerably.
Palmer Ridge's Zach Hester said his team was ready for anything, especially Roper — Colorado's leading rusher who had 2,537 yards coming into Saturday's game. Roper ended up taking most of Erie's snaps and finished with a tough 94 yards on 32 carries.
"We knew they were going to try and power us, and we wanted to hit them in the mouth and show that we could power up, too," Hester said. "We didn't focus all on (Roper) this week because we didn't want to get burned by everybody else, but we knew who he was and just wanted to make sure and tackle him."
Evans put Palmer Ridge up 7-0 early with a 56-yard touchdown pass to Roberson II on the Bears' first play. from scrimmage. After another Erie punt, Palmer Ridge made it 14-0 on a 12-yard Brom run.
The next 14 points belonged to the Tigers (11-3). Erie stopped Palmer Ridge on a fourth down near midfield and used that jolt to drive 56 yards and get a 4-yard Roper run at the 10:08 mark of the second, and an Erie fumble recovery gave the visiting team a chance to drive again. Roper, not known for being a quarterback but thrown into a chaotic situation, extended a play to the sidelines with his legs and hit Jacob Mansdorfer on a 30-yard touchdown to make it 14-14 with 5:44 to go before half.
The teams traded possessions from there a couple of times, but Palmer Ridge posted 12 more points before halftime to take a 26-14 lead. Evans hit Roberson for a 69-yard score with 1:06 left and then got a fumble recovery at the EHS 5-yard line on the next drive, with which the Bears capitalized on via a Ruel rush into the end zone.
Erie's last score of the game would come at the start of the third quarter, a drive capped by a Roper 16-yard run to make it 26-21 with 5:57 left in the stanza. A 9-yard TD pass from Evans to Andrew Miller made it 32-21 Palmer Ridge, and Miller came back right on the field and was at the right place and time to hop on the blocked punt with 1:05 to make it 39-21 and put the game out of reach.
"It was a lot of stuff that went wrong, and you try to control what you can control and sometimes things go wrong, to boot," Mansdorfer said. "That's a hell of a team over there we played and we just couldn't quite put our feet down and get this one."
Erie was battling for its second title and first since 2008 while in 2A. Mathis was proud of the team and the community for showing up in droves to the Air Force Academy.
"It's a great feeling because you love your teammates but the cool thing about football is it's about the community," senior Alex Mathis said. "It meant a lot to see everyone come together like that."
Palmer Ridge 46, Erie 21
At Falcon StadiumErie (11-3)01470—21
Palmer Ridge (14-0)1412137—46
Palmer Ridge — Anthony Roberson II 56 pass from Ty Evans (Josh Boles kick). Palmer Ridge — Noah Brom 12 run (Boles kick).
Erie — Noah Roper 4 run (Julian Custine kick). Erie — Jacob Mansdorfer 30 pass from Noah Roper (Custine kick). Palmer Ridge — Roberson II 69 pass from Evans (kick failed). Palmer Ridge — Roberson 5 run (pass failed).
Erie — Roper 16 run (Custine kick). Palmer Ridge — Andrew Miller 9 pass from Evans (pass failed). Palmer Ridge — Andrew Miller punt block recovered in end zone (Boles kick).
Palmer Ridge — Evans 1 run (Boles kick).
RUSHING — Erie: Noah Roper 32-94, Jacob Mansdorfer 8-12, Preston Vanlandingham 4-26, Dion Lucero 1-1.
PASSING — Erie: Lucero 0-1-0-0, Roper 3-6-0-86
RECEIVING — Erie: Alexander Mathis 1-42, Jacob Mansdorfer 1-30, Isaac Khanna 1-14.