Championship teams find ways to win in every situation.
That has been the case for the Palisade High School football team the past three years.
This year, Palisade, the top-ranked team and defending Class 3A champs, has come from behind in the final minutes of two games to stay undefeated. Running back Jason Popick popped an 80-yard run with three minutes remaining against Glenwood Springs to give his team a 14-13 win. Two weeks later, running back Kyle Britton broke free for a 37-yard touchdown catch and run in the final seconds for a 35-31 win against Rifle.
Palisade's comeback abilities are all too familiar for Moffat County upperclassmen. Last year, the Maroon Bulldogs rallied to beat the Blue Bulldogs with a Hail Mary pass in the fourth quarter.
"One thing is that we have been able to beat teams with more talent than us, and that includes Moffat County last year," Palisade coach Todd Casebier said. "We've been in so many close games the last three years we have the confidence that, when it's close in the fourth quarter, we're going to find a way. We've only lost one close game in the last three years, and it was the state championship."
Hafey hopes his team is gaining a similar confidence, and he thought his team demonstrated its championship potential last week.
"We trailed 13-0 against Glenwood, and nobody panicked," he said. "We did what it took to win. We used our offense in the first half and our defense in the second half."
There is no question that to knock off the No. 1 team in the state, it is going to take championship-caliber performances from the offense and defense.
"We need to control their running game and their backs coming out of the backfield for passes," Hafey said.
It might be easier said than done.
Palisade leads Class 3A in rushing and is ranked 20th in passing. That means it is no surprise that almost every time Palisade snaps the ball it will end up in Britton's or Popick's hands. Predictable, yes, but it hasn't been easy to stop.
The No. 1 Bulldogs have compiled 2,076 yards on the ground. Those numbers come with Britton, the returning 3A Player of the Year, sitting two games out for team violations.
The No. 3 Bulldogs are a harder team to predict on offense. They rank fifth in the state in rushing and sixth in passing. They have accumulated more total offense, 2,552 yards, than Palisade, 2,402 yards, and in a balanced way. Moffat County, led by senior Kellan Moore's 832 yards, has 1,649 rushing yards. Junior quarterback Derek Duran has led the passing game to 913 yards.
Casebier recognized that his team had to be prepared for a versatile offense.
"Moffat is good at many things," he said. "We need to control the line and hold on to our hats because of the different things they can bring."
Both coaches agreed that turnovers wasn't a stat they wanted to see in their column .
Coughing up the ball has been a weakness for Moffat County this year. It is the only statistic Moffat County does not dominate when compared with its opponents (except punting yards). The Blue and White have given the ball up 10 times. Their opponents turned it over 11 times in games against them.
"Turnovers are the key," Hafey said.
"If we hold on to the ball, we're in the game," added defensive coach Chris Dralle.
The week should be one of the most anticipated of the season for Western Slope football fans. It's not often that the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the state face off in Northwest Colorado.
"The same mascot, the same record," Hafey said. "Could the game situation be better?"
Palisade collectively feels like its situation has improved in the last two weeks. Last week they not only defeated their rival in Rifle, but a decision to keep them out of the playoffs was overturned by the Colorado State High School Activities Association last week.
"It was a relief to everybody but mostly our players," he said. "Our coaching staff can do this over again next year, but our seniors will never get another chance."
The Western Slope League race is far from finished, but Palisade will get a bit of a breather after tonight's game. They already will have played the top three teams in the standings.
Moffat County will have to get back up again Monday and prepare for Rifle.
"We have the challenge this week of getting up to compete two weeks in a row," Casebier said. "Next week that will be Moffat's challenge, because Rifle is a very good football team and their place is a tough place to play."
The winner of the dogfight will be the favorite to win what many say is the toughest conference in 3A football.
"I would definitely say the winner is in the driver's seat," Hafey said.
And if things go the way he hopes, the only driver's seat Palisade will be in is the one on the bus traveling back home Friday night.
The kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.