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Football: Boulder relying on simple defense for title game

Steady play, pressure on opposing QBs aiding Panthers’ run to Class 5A Season C state championship game

Denver East's Berto Zepeda tries to ...
Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Denver East’s Berto Zepeda tries to spin away from Boulder’s Elijah Graham during the Denver East at Boulder at Recht Field on May 8, 2021.
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Boulder football’s Season C run to Saturday night’s Class 5A state title game appearance could hardly be described as run of the mill. During a pandemic, nothing is.

Extenuating circumstances called for simpler measures, and head coach Ryan Bishop threw out his defensive playbook to adapt to a more instinctual style of play. The Panthers made one huge difference in their approach to the game, and it’s been the chef’s ‘KISS’ to their success in the trenches.

“Before, there was a different defensive coordinator that’s no longer with us,” Bishop said. “He chose to pursue some other things in the spring when we decided to play in the spring, so when I took over the defense and called the defense, we just got together. Our acronym is KISS — keep it simple, stupid. It’s a basic defense where we just let our kids fly around.”

The Panthers have taken out all six opponents they’ve faced, including in a 6-3 semifinal contest against Denver East just last week. Had it not been for that simplified defense, they never would have made it past the Angels. Boulder sacked the Denver East quarterback eight times, just a fraction of the 41 they’ve collected all year.

Senior Elijah Graham leads all of Class 5A in total sacks with 11, and he’d never played football before this season. Junior Julian Mechels owns 10.

“(Bishop) just tells me to use my height and my awareness,” Graham said. “In the first game, the first play, I got a sack and it was exciting. Bishop hyped it up too. I listened to Julian and he just told me what to do.”

Senior Drake Arthur has played with much of Boulder’s roster since grade school. After years of camaraderie and experience together, he knows his teammates and their playstyle quite well.

This year, however, they’ve taken on a new life of their own. It all just came down to real-time intuition.

“We really just kind of went back to our freshman year defense that we’ve been running since we were second graders. We just play as hard as we can, rally to the ball and hope that the X’s and O’s don’t really matter. We kind of fly around,” Arthur said. “I kind of just turn off my brain and just act instinctively. They took all of the coverages out of it for the linebackers, so we can just act on instinct, read our keys and go make a play.”

Boulder's Omar Molina, left, and Ben ...
Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Boulder’s Omar Molina, left, and Ben Mulenda, stop Denver East’s Isaiah Davis during the Denver East at Boulder at Recht Field on May 8, 2021.

To date, the Panthers have been credited with 455 total tackles, or about 75 per game. Arthur has taken down 69 opponents, 51 of which he did on his own volition. While the offense is nothing to scoff at (259 yards per game and 17 offensive touchdowns),  the defense has brought a sense of normalcy during a year that has been anything but.

The Panthers had to cancel their first game due to positive COVID tests. They then moved their second game to a Monday so they could fit in nine practices beforehand. They played again on Friday that same week, then had to reschedule the third game because the opponent had COVID issues. During the final week of the regular season, COVID quarantines canceled the Fort Collins contest and Boulder picked up a matchup against Adams City instead. Topping it off, a second scheduled game against Adams City to end the season was axed.

The Panthers have held true to their mission through it all. Now, all their hard work will pay off when they go head-to-head with Far Northeast for Season C Class 5A glory on Saturday night at CSU-Pueblo’s Neta and Eddie DeRose Thunderbowl Stadium (7 p.m.).

“It’s been crazy because every week, you never know what’s going to happen,” Bishop said. “Every day, you don’t know what’s going to happen. … Until we made the playoffs, we hadn’t had a normal week yet. I think the big thing is just their resilience. They’ve had to overcome something every week. Starting in March, they had to overcome COVID and all that, but just during the football season, they’ve had to sacrifice a lot and overcome a lot.”

No. 4 Boulder vs. No. 2 Far Northeast

Details: Class 5A Season C state championship, Saturday, 7 p.m., Neta and Eddie DeRose Thunderbowl (on the campus of CSU-Pueblo)

What to know: Boulder, just one of 12 5A teams that opted to play in the spring, earned the No. 4 seed out of eight. The Panthers went 4-0 in regular-season play, with victory margins that ranged from three to 41 points. … Far Northeast, on the other hand, earned the second seed after going 2-2 before the postseason. The Warriors opened 2021 with a 29-21 loss to Denver South, who ultimately claimed the No. 1 seed. Two weeks later, they fell by just a field goal to Vista Peak Prep, 13-10. … Each of Far Northeast’s nonforfeit, regular-season wins came through large scoring deficits. In the semifinals last week, the Warriors exacted revenge against Vista Peak when they defeated the Bison 23-16 to claim their spot in the title game. … Boulder’s postseason path proved a bit easier, thanks in large part to the eighth-seeded Angels. Denver East entered its quarterfinal contest against Denver South as the underdog but stunned the Ravens into submission, 21-14. When the semifinal matchup against the Angels came down to a defensive battle, the Panthers’ return to basics helped win the war. … Now, Boulder will have to rely on its near-impenetrable defense to stop the multi-pronged Warrior offense (1,355 rushing yards, 764 receiving) if it hopes to walk away victorious in its first title-game appearance in 29 years.