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Football: Erie gunning for upset of No. 1 Rifle in 3A playoffs

Erie's Pedro Anderson (2) carries the ball upfield during a victory over Mead earlier this season.
Greg Lindstrom
Erie’s Pedro Anderson (2) carries the ball upfield during a victory over Mead earlier this season.

The jubilation lasted a few minutes. Then reality set in for the Erie football team.

Yes, the Tigers qualified for the 3A playoffs, which they expected but understood was no sure thing. But after the sigh of relief, Erie had no choice but to look forward.

As the 16th seed, the Tigers have to travel 205 miles to face the beast of the classification in top-seeded Rifle (1 p.m., Saturday). The Bears (10-0) and otherworldly running back Ryan Moeller are the only unbeaten team in 3A and boast a ridiculous scoring margin of 433-35.

No team has been within 21 points of the Bears this season.

“We know they’re a good team, obviously, with being the No. 1 seed,” Erie multi-position senior Pedro Anderson said. “They’re really quick, really strong and they’re going to come out to play. But we feel our best is as good as everyone else’s best.”

If the Tigers (7-3) are looking for historical precedent, they can take a peek at their opponent. In 2005, Rifle was the No. 16 seed and was given virtually no shot to upend top-seeded and unbeaten Northridge. The Bears won 21-20 and parlayed the momentum into a trip to the state championship game.

For Erie, there are a few reasons for optimism. For starters, all three of the Tigers’ losses were to playoff teams — third-seeded Frederick, No. 11 Northridge and No. 12 Holy Family. And all of those losses came when the Tigers were restructuring things after the loss of team leader and leading rusher Ryne Atkins to a broken leg.

“These last few weeks we’ve really improved as a team and gotten a lot better,” said Anderson, who has spent some time at Atkins’ vacated fullback spot. “We’ve overcome a lot of difficulties. We have a lot of guys stepping up and that’s what I had to do.”

In addition, Erie coach Larry Gartrell is liking the forecast. As of Thursday, it called for temperatures in the 40s with a strong chance of snow.

“I’m hoping for a blizzard myself,” Gartrell said.

The coach mentioned that Moeller, who averages 220.2 yards on the ground and has scored 31 touchdowns, is a speed burner who has been clocked in the 11.1-second range goal line to goal line.

Erie’s grind-it-out running back corps of Anderson, Joe Ramey, Christian Mickey and B.J. Jensen might benefit from the conditions, but Gartrell believes it could curtail a back like Moeller.

“Overall, I think it helps us,” Gartrell said. “When you have a running back who runs an 11.1 100, anytime you have a slick, muddy surface, it’s good because it’s going to slow down cuts and the ability to get up to speed.”

Rifle has averaged 366 yards on the ground this season with unheralded No. 2 back Kellin Leigh averaging 10.6 yards a carry en route to 847 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Bears, coached by Damon Wells, are one of the few teams averaging better than Erie’s 280 rushing yards a game.

When the Bears have had to throw, they’ve done that well, too. Quarterback Adam Rice has thrown eight touchdowns and only one interception.

“They’re good, no doubt about it,” Gartrell said. “They’re well-coached, they’re disciplined and they get after it. They’re not as big as some of the teams we played this year, like Frederick and Holy Family, but we know where we’re at.

“These kids have earned their playoff spot and we’ll get our shot. We’ll just try to make the best of it.”

Follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulWillis21