FORT MORGAN — Last season's runner-up in Class 3A, the Erie football team had barreled through the first 10 weeks of the regular season before Friday night.
Yet to truly be challenged in a close game, the unbeaten Tigers had little left to prove before they embarked on a playoff run that they have awaited for the past year and hope will end in another shot at the state title. But on the road against a quality opponent in Fort Morgan on Friday night, the Tigers' final opponent of the regular season forced them to prove their worth one last time before the postseason begins.
The Tigers won the regular-season finale in atypical fashion, 31-28, in by far the closest game they played to date in 2018.
Friday's victory simultaneously locked up the North Valley League title, completed an undefeated regular season and strengthened the Tigers' case to be the top overall seed when the Class 3A postseason begins next week.
"I'm sure glad it happened this way," Tigers senior lineman Nate Hackney said. "Of course, you sure love beating teams by a lot and asserting dominance on people but we needed a game like this. They were a well-coached team and they have some great players. We put in a four-quarter game and that sets us up better for the playoffs."
The No. 1-ranked Tigers (10-0, 5-0) have not trailed or been tied at or after halftime of any game this season. On Friday night, they were knotted up at 21-21 with Fort Morgan (8-2, 4-1), which was the latest they had been tied in with an opponent this fall.
Erie senior Noah Roper, whose 3,341 all-purpose yards from the 2017 season are the second most all-time for a single season in Colorado history, scored his fourth touchdown of the game (three rushing, one passing) to put the Tigers back ahead 28-21 with 3 minutes, 23 seconds left in the third quarter. While the teams had been trading touchdowns all game, Isaac Khanna blocked a Fort Morgan punt late in the third quarter that set up a 30-yard field goal from Julian Custine and gave Erie a 10-point leading heading into the fourth quarter.
Despite all the offense in the game, the outcome was decided with a late stand by an Erie defense had allowed just 44 points in five conference games this season.
Down three points, Fort Morgan took the ball at its own 32-yard line with 3:40 left and a chance to tie or take the lead. The Tigers defense forced a tackle for loss, an incomplete pass, Hackney and teammate Tab Cire combined on a sack and the defense forced another incomplete pass to seal the victory.
"When our defensive unit went out there, I could see the fire in everyone's eyes that we were really coming for that ball," Hackney said. "We wanted it back and we weren't going to let this one slip."
Both are likely to be playoff teams, as the Tigers entered Friday's game as the No. 5 team in the 3A RPI standings and Fort Morgan entered as the No. 15 team.
Erie 31, Fort Morgan 28
At Fort Morgan H.S.Erie (10-0, 5-0) 7 14 10 0 — 31
Fort Morgan — JP Hamer 64 pass from Isaac Linker (Adam Cardona kick). Erie — Noah Roper 1 run (Julian Custine kick).
Fort Morgan — Linker 8 run (Cardona kick). Erie — Roper 42 run (Cutine kick). Erie — Kaleb Fuhrmann 55 pass from Roper (Custine kick).
For Morgan — Caden Edson 14 pass from Linker (Cardona kick). Erie — Roper 10 run (Custine kick). Erie — Custine 30 field goal.
Fort Morgan — Linker 4 run (Cardona kick).
RUSHING — Erie: Roper 32-181, Dion Lucero 3-18, Gavin Mendoza 6-8, Ian Vera 1-3; Fort Morgan: JP Hamer 18-89, Isaac Linker 12-65, Cael Langford 1-4.
PASSING — Erie: Gavin Mendoza 3-5-0-50, Noah Roper 1-1-0-55, Dion Lucero 0-2-0-0; Fort Morgan: Isaac Linker 5-16-0-126.
RECEIVING — Erie: Kaleb Fuhrmann 3-55, Jaymeson Nelms 1-50; Fort Morgan: Jacob Ortega 2-34, JP Hamer 1-64, Caden Edson 1-14, Connor Fajardo 1-14.