Explosive plays by Durango beat the methodical movement of Palisade on Saturday.
Behind three touchdowns of 30 yards or more, No. 7 Durango High School (8-3) earned a 23-14 win to take down the No. 10 Palisade Bulldogs (7-4) in the opening round of the Colorado High School Activities Association Class 3A State Football Playoffs. The Demons had to overcome 17 penalties for more than 100 yards to get it done.
“It feels amazing to get out of here with a win,” DHS junior quarterback Jordan Woolverton said. “Our crowd was amazing, and our offensive line played great. Penalties held us back, but we got those big plays, and it felt really good to have more of those than the other team to win this game.”
Everett Howland had another huge game for Durango, as the senior running back rushed for 120 yards on 10 carries, including a 92-yard first-quarter touchdown. He also had a game-changing 64-yard touchdown reception in the final minute of the second quarter on a little swing pass from Woolverton to help the Demons take a 17-7 lead into halftime.
“All the credit to my blockers this game,” Howland said. “I was untouched on two touchdowns. All the credit to them.”
Palisade quarterback Cam Tucker, originally from nearby Bayfield before he moved to Palisade in the sixth grade, had both of the Bulldogs’ touchdowns. His 1-yard TD run on Palisade’s opening drive of the third quarter capped a 10-play, 80-yard drive that brought the Bulldogs within 17-14.
But it was a 32-yard TD run from Woolverton with 9 minutes, 44 seconds to play in the fourth quarter that solidified the win for the Demons. Woolverton spun out of a tackle, ran up the far sideline and used a stiff arm to work his way into the end zone.
“I haven’t won a home playoff game in my high school career,” Woolverton said. “To win this game and move on, it felt great to get that for this home crowd.”
Woolverton finished 8-of-10 passing for 194 yards and one TD. He also ran for 68 yards and the TD.
Julio Rodriguez was Palisade’s leading rusher. He carried the ball 24 times for 132 yards.
It was the first home playoff win for Durango since a first-round victory against Aurora Central in the 2015 Class 4A playoffs. Now, the Demons will look to continue a revenge tour next week at No. 2 Pueblo South (10-1), the only other team in 3A other than Palisade to beat the Demons this season. Durango lost that game 35-34 in the final minute in what amounted to the 3A South Central League Championship.
“Last time we played South, we gave them that game,” DHS head coach David Vogt said. “It’s about us cleaning up and playing the way we can. We are a really good team if we don’t have penalties, and that is going to be a difference next week. When we play better teams, we can’t have those penalties hurt us.”
The loss ended the season for a Bulldogs team that reached the Class 3A semifinals a year ago.
“This class has been good. They made it to the semifinals last year and quarterfinals when they were freshmen,” Palisade head coach Joe Ramunno said. “It’s disappointing this year. We fought some adversity, but that’s the way it goes. Durango was better than us today.”
It came during a week in which Palisade High School was closed because a virus that infected more than 300 students and staff members. Ramunno would not use potential illness amongst his players as an excuse for the loss and simply said his team didn’t have enough firepower Saturday.
“That’s part of the game,” Ramunno said. “You just gotta deal with it.”
Palisade beat Durango 25-18 in Durango earlier this season on Sept. 6. In that game, Tucker rushed for 211 yards on 30 carries. This time, the Demons kept him to 71 yards and the two touchdowns but also two key fumbles in the second half.
Tucker also hurt Durango in a 2018 matchup in Grand Junction in which he had an interception returned for a TD and another running score in a 20-3 Palisade win.
“For me, I’ve never beat (Palisade) as head coach,” Vogt said. “One of our other coaches played them twice when they were in school and never beat them. It’s huge for us to beat a school we’ve never really beat to start this revenge tour.”
Durango did not turn either of the turnovers into points, but they came at costly times. The first was at the 4:45 mark of the third quarter, as Thomas Barnes ripped the ball away from Tucker. Ben Finneseth of Durango picked it up and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown, but the score was called back because of a penalty on the Demons.
It was Barnes who recovered another Palisade fumble after Woolverton’s big fourth-quarter TD run. It came on the Durango 33-yard line, as the Bulldogs had marched 47 yards looking to make it a one-score game before the ball came out.
“Turnovers were big. That’s the way it goes,” Ramunno said. “They got some great athletes and very well-coached kids. It was a good victory for Durango. Hand it to them.”
How it happenedDurango turned the ball over once on a promising opening drive of the game. Howland and Woolverton marched the Demons 71 yards in four plays, but the ball came out of Woolverton’s hands as he went back to pass. Woolverton came out of the pile with the ball, but the referees had already signaled it was Palisade ball.
All it would cost Durango was field position, as the defense immediately got the ball back for the Demons after forcing a punt.
Durango had it on its own 6-yard line, and two plays later Howland went untouched for his 92-yard score to give Durango a 7-0 lead with seven minutes to play in the opening quarter.
“It was a counter right. (Carver Willis) and my brother, Nathan, I saw them pulling, and they did their jobs,” Howland said. “The left side blocked down, and I was gone.”
Durango looked to take a two-touchdown lead on its next drive after Willis and Fort Pitts combined to sack Tucker and force a short Palisade punt that gave the demons the ball on their own 47.
A 21-yard run by Woolverton got the Demons down to the Palisade 2-yard line, but runs by Woolverton and Howland were stuffed, and then Willis, a 6-foot-5, 270-pound senior lineman, lined up at running back and took a handoff from Woolverton. He hit a defender at the goal line and fell into the end zone but was ruled down an inch shy of the goal line. The Demons appeared to line up for the same play on fourth-and-goal, but a false start forced Durango to settle for a 22-yard field goal from Caleb McGrath that made it 10-0 Demons with 9:20 to go in the first quarter.
Palisade answered the score with a strong drive behind the running of Tucker and fullback Julio Rodriguez, who ran for 39 yards on the drive. Tucker would score on an 8-yard run to cut the Durango lead to 10-7 with 3:51 to go in the first half.
The Bulldogs would get the ball back before halftime with good field position at the Durango 45. But the Demon defense forced a turnover on downs. One play later, Woolverton hit the swing pass to Howland for a 64-yard TD that gave DHS a 17-7 lead.
“Everett is a great runner, and he saw a lot of daylight,” Woolverton said. “I had that feeling right when I threw it to him that it was going to be a big play.”
Palisade got the ball first in the third quarter and executed a brilliant drive. A Tucker 25-yard pass to Logan Harris on third-and-5 and then a 19-yard Rodriguez run set up Tucker for an easy 1-yard TD run.
It would be a turnover on downs forced by the Durango defense on the Palisade 29 that set up Woolverton’s game-clinching TD run. Two false start penalties on DHS during the extra-point attempt made it a 30-yard kick that was blocked by the Bulldogs, but the Demon lead was still two scores at 23-14.
Penalties were a major story in the second half. DHS committed 17 penalties for a total of 117 yards. That yardage didn’t include a pair of personal fouls on Durango that were offsetting with Palisade penalties.
Chop blocks were also big, as the Bulldogs were whistled for four of them.
One Durango penalty also negated the Finneseth fumble return, but Barnes’ play to rip the ball away from Tucker helped fuel the Durango sideline.
“Forced fumbles, turnovers on downs, that was a big deal today,” Barnes said. “Our defense has been working so hard this whole year. It feels good to have a strong defensive team. We’ve all been through hell and back, and I just love this team.”
Durango will look to clean up the penalties before next week’s quarterfinal showdown with No. 2 Pueblo South, which rolled past No. 15 Lutheran 46-8 in the first round. The higher seed won every first-round matchup of the Class 3A playoffs, and Durango and Palisade played the closest game.
“Our team has been through it all,” Woolverton said. “We’ve played every type of team. We are excited to go in this week with this much confidence that we have right now with our guys playing like they are up front. We will clean up these penalties and be ready to go this week.”