PORTLAND —There are a couple of different ways to evaluate the first two weeks of the Portland Bulldogs 2009 football season.
The first, far more dispirited version is based on simple fact: The Bulldogs have yet to win a game and are now 0-2.
The other more practical conclusion is there are a lot of teams in Western Class A that could be sitting in the same predicament. Portland opened this year with games against arguably two of the top teams in the league. The Deering Rams went undefeated last year in the regular season before the Bonny Eagle Scots knocked them out on the way to another state championship. And no one needs reminding of the Scots’ prowess in recent years.
But there is one thing certain in all this hyperbole, the Bulldogs are a much-improved football team. In fact, this team bears very little semblance to last year’s team that labored to a 3-5 finish.
Friday night, Bonny Eagle jumped out to a 14-7 lead at halftime, and then delivered the knockout blow when Max Alfiero returned the second-half kickoff 80 yards for a score, as the Scots did just enough to outlast a tough Portland team for a 27-14 win at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
Bonny Eagle (2-0) runs a complicated offense based largely on deception and opened this year with a new quarterback in senior Ryan Nason. And though Nason looked shaky at times, he rushed for 71 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and passed for 80 more, including a 25-yard score to senior Joe Davis.
Portland on the other hand, proved capable of playing tough with one of the state’s elite programs, displaying a different, winning culture that had been lacking in recent seasons. Led by junior tailback Imadhi Zagon, Portland seems poised to rejoin the playoff fray after a rare two-season absence in the 24-year Mike Bailey coaching era.
“We played hard and were much more physical tonight,” said Bailey. “We got better and we’re going in the right direction. I thought our defense played superb for the amount of time they were on the field. That’s a good football team. But the goal isn’t to win any one particular game. The object is to still be playing in November.”
Zagon, at 6-foot-2-inches and 203 pounds, has a devastating combination of power and speed. This season he returned with the same set of skills and talent, but looks like a completely different player. Last year he absorbed the hits, this year he’s delivering them. His pad level is down and his eyes are up, and both of his touchdown runs against Bonny Eagle featured elements of what makes him one of the league’s most dangerous backs.
Bonny Eagle took advantage of a special teams miscue by the Bulldogs to score the game’s first touchdown. With Portland set to punt around midfield, a low snap forced junior Caleb Kenney on the scramble and he was downed at the Portland 49-yard line.
It took the Scots eight plays and over three minutes to score. On second down at the 16, Nason kept it around left end, broke a tackle in the flat and scored. The Scots’ Nate Martel kicked one of his three point-after conversions for a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
Portland got the ball back and punted, but Bonny Eagle fumbled on first down and the Bulldogs recovered in great field position at the 20-yard line.
On second down, Zagon took the handoff from senior quarterback Jason Strauss, burst through the line of scrimmage, shed a pair of tacklers without even acknowledging their presence, then turned on the jets and scored easily to pull the Bulldogs even at 7-7 with 2:20 left in the first quarter.
Zagon’s touchdown was followed with a punt exchange before Bonny Eagle put together an eight-play, 57-yard scoring drive capped by a 25-yard Nason-to-Davis touchdown with 3:31 left in the second quarter. The Scots drive chewed up over four minutes of the second quarter, resulting in a 14-7 halftime deficit for the Bulldogs.
Still, Portland went to the half feeling good about its chances.
However, disaster struck on the first play after intermission.
Kenney, prized as both a top linebacker and running back, also handles all of the kicking duties for Portland. His second-half kickoff changed the outcome of the game, when Alfiero fielded it and went 80-yards for a sudden, 21-7 Bonny Eagle lead.
No doubt shocked by the opening touchdown return, Portland went three-and-out on its next possession, but forced a Bonny Eagle fumble that Strauss dove on at the Bulldogs 38-yard line.
The Bulldogs answered Alfiero’s return with a five-play scoring drive that took less than two minutes to make it a one-score game, 21-14, with eight minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Portland’s impressive scoring drive featured what should key its hopes of returning to the postseason this year, a solid dose of Zagon and Cheverus-transfer Will Walsh. The combination conjures up any of the old sport axioms for a tandem with opposite, yet equally effective skill sets. Zagon has sprinter-like speed, and Walsh, just a junior, lowers the boom between the tackles for the tough yards.
On this compact drive, Strauss handed to Zagon for a 15-yard gain, then stuffed it in Walsh’s gut for another 12-yards across midfield to the Bonny Eagle 38. On first down, Zagon burst ahead for 7 yards and Walsh carried again for a yard to the 27. On third down, Zagon swept left, lowered his pads and destroyed a pair of Bonny Eagle would-be-tacklers, spinning them both to the ground and racing in for a 27-yard touchdown to make it 21-14.
But the champion Scots regrouped and answered on their very next possession with a methodical, six-minute drive that devoured the third quarter clock. On the 10th play, Nason snuck in from the 4-yard line for a 27-14 lead that would stand.
“We just need to keep working hard,” Strauss said. “We got better already from last week. We improved a lot over the summer. We hit the weight room hard and we’re all one year older. Hopefully it will translate into wins.”
Still, Portland offered more hope for the rest of the season, pitching three brilliant defensive stops in the fourth quarter to stay within a pair of scores. Led by senior linebacker Derrick Floridino, senior captain Nolan Hellen, senior captain Joe Zukowski, junior nose tackle Carl Szanton, and junior linebacker Joel DiPietro, Portland forced Bonny Eagle to turn the ball over three times on downs deep in Bulldogs territory without scoring.
“We had a great week of practice and have come a long way,” said Floridino. “The kickoff return kind of sucked the air out of us a little bit. But our defense played great tonight. We work well together and everybody swarms to the ball.”
Portland will look to rebound and enter the win column Thursday, traveling to take on the 0-2 Westbrook Blue Blazes at 7 p.m. The game was moved up 24 hours due to the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah.