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Portland senior Zack Elowitch leaps over Oxford Hills’ Alex Turner during the teams’ showdown Friday night. The Bulldogs held on for a 17-14 victory.
Brewster Burns / Sun Journal photos.
Portland senior Ben Trefethen is brought down by Oxford Hills’ Cole Dunham.
P- 7 3 7 0- 17
OH- 0 14 0 0- 14
P- Knop 1 run (Vumpa kick)
OH- LaFrance 42 run (Luksza kick)
OH- Pruett 53 pass from Carson (Luksza kick)
P- Vumpa 20 FG
P- Knop 5 run (Vumpa kick)
PARIS—Control the ball, control the clock and control the game.
Portland executed that to a T Friday evening in the Class A North “Game of the Year” at Oxford Hills and as a result, the Bulldogs earned a crucial W in the penultimate game of the regular season.
Portland took a trip to play the red-hot Vikings with the top seed for the upcoming playoffs at stake and the Bulldogs, thanks to staunch defense, consistent offense and a big dose of heart, got the job done, earning this season’s statement victory.
After forcing a three-and-out to start the game, Portland’s first offensive possession resulted in a 16-play drive which chewed up nine minutes and ended with a 1-yard dive by junior quarterback Sam Knop for a 7-0 lead.
Oxford Hills then roared to life in the second period, scoring twice on big plays to go on top.
First senior Parker LaFrance broke away for a 42-yard touchdown run to tie it.
Then, senior quarterback Colton Carson found senior Jonny Pruett for a 53-yard TD and a 14-7 lead.
The Vikings weren’t able to add to their advantage, however, despite forcing consecutive turnovers, and just before the half, the Bulldogs, thanks to a long run from senior Zack Elowitch, drove down the field and got a 20-yard field goal from freshman place-kicker Cristo Vumpa as the half expired, pulling within 14-10.
Portland then went on top to stay in the third quarter, this time using 17 plays and 9:33 to march for the go-ahead score, as Knop scored on a 5-yard bootleg run and a 17-14 lead.
Oxford Hills had its chances to rally, but the Bulldogs’ defense refused to buckle and after the Vikings had an apparent go-ahead score called back due to a penalty, Portland slammed the door and prevailed, 17-14.
The Bulldogs improved to 6-1, grabbed the inside track for the top seed for the upcoming Class A North playoffs and in the process, dropped Oxford Hills to 5-2.
“We knew it was going to be a huge game,” Elowitch said. “We knew we had to come out here, play hard and limit our mistakes and get the ‘W.’ This is a signature win. When you win a game like this, it’s a lot of fun. Blowing out teams is fine, but close, grind-it-out games are what we play for.”
Friday’s contest had all the earmarks of a playoff game.
A chill in the air, a big crowd, hard hitting and high intensity.
Both teams came in having stumbled just once in six outings.
Oxford Hills started out by beating host Lewiston (34-0) and visiting Edward Little (41-13) and after being knocked off at Sanford (20-6), the Vikings bounced back with a 45-0 home blanking of Bangor. After an impressive 42-14 win at Cheverus, Oxford Hills made a big statement last week, downing visiting Bonny Eagle, 31-22.
Portland, meanwhile, started by dominating host Windham, 49-0, and beating visiting Cheverus, 37-7. After falling at Bonny Eagle, 24-7, the Bulldogs got back on track at Lewiston, winning, 28-14, then they handled visiting Edward Little (42-8) and Bangor (49-0).
Last fall, the teams met twice, with the Vikings upsetting the host Bulldogs in the regular season opener, 20-14, and with Portland returning the favor with a 21-6 victory in Paris in the Class A North quarterfinals.
That gave the Bulldogs a 6-1 all-time lead in the series (see sidebar, below).
Friday, on a chilly evening (49 degrees at kickoff and dropping), Oxford Hills packed the stands and had a pregame bonfire, but in the end, it was Portland leaving town feeling festive with a huge win in its back pocket.
The Bulldogs won the opening coin toss, but deferred possession to the second half.
The Vikings started the game with possession at their 26 and couldn’t go anywhere.
After LaFrance lost a yard on the first play from scrimmage, senior Emerson Brown got the ball and got the yard back. On third-and-10, Carson kept the ball and picked up four yards, but Oxford Hills had to punt.
Portland took over at its 40 with 9:49 left in the first quarter and the Bulldogs wound use up most of the time left before scoring the game’s first points.
The drive began inauspiciously with a bad snap that Knop fell on for a one-yard loss. Elowitch then took a pitch and ran to his right, gaining 11 yards for a first down at midfield and the tone was set, Portland was going to move the ball on the ground and good luck stopping it.
After senior Ben Trefethen gained five yards, Knop kept it for four and Trefethen gained one more, setting up fourth-and-inches, where Knop kept the ball for a yard and fumbled it forward in the process, but the visitors got a break as senior Tyler Blazejewski recovered the ball for a 10-yard gain, setting up first down at the Oxford Hills 29.
After Trefethen ran for four-yards, then two, Knop was held to a yard, setting up fourth-and-3, but Elowitch moved the chains again, rushing for five yards to the 17.
After Elowitch gained seven yards and was held to no gain, Elowitch picked up five yards for a first-and-goal at the 5.
Elowitch ran for three yards, Elowitch got stood up for a yard just short of the goal line and on third-and-goal, Knop kept the ball and snuck it across the threshold for a 1-yard score with 38.7 seconds remaining in the frame, capping a 16-play, 60-yard, 9:01 march.
Vumpa’s extra point gave Portland a 7-0 advantage.
After a terrific 44-yard kickoff return by senior Alex Turner, the Vikings started at the Bulldogs’ 45 and it took all of two plays for them to answer and pull even.
On the final play of the first quarter, LaFrance gained three yards. On the first play of the second period, LaFrance got the call again and this time, he took an option pitch from Carson, ran to his right, found a hole, cut back, broke a tackle, then ran into the end zone for a 42-yard score with 11:11 remaining in the half. Senior Janek Luksza added the PAT to tie the game, 7-7.
Portland began its next drive at its 30 and after Trefethen and Elowitch each gained a yard, Elowitch picked up nine yards on third-and-8 for a first down at the 41. The march then took a turn for the worse, when the next snap sailed over Knop’s head and by the time the quarterback fell on it, a 21-yard loss was the end result. Knop then threw incomplete and senior Grant Jacobson ran for six yards, forcing a punt.
Oxford Hills got the ball back at its 48 with 8:44 to play in the half and again needed just two plays to score and take the lead.
After Carson lost a yard, he dropped back to pass, was pressured, stepped up and appeared ready to scramble before spotting Pruett wide open down the left sideline. Pruett caught the ball, then waltzed into the end zone for a 53-yard score with 7:58 on the clock. Luksza’s extra point made it 14-7 Vikings.
At that juncture, the prospect of Oxford Hills not scoring again was unthinkable, but the Bulldogs’ defense buckled down the rest of the night.
When the first play of Portland’s ensuing drive resulted in a fumble recovered by Vikings’ sophomore Marcus Stone, the hosts were just 18 yards from extending their lead, but instead, they went backwards.
On first down, Carson had Pruett open in the end zone, but Pruett couldn’t bring the ball in. After Bulldogs senior Nathan Kapongo dropped LaFrance for a one-yard loss, Carson threw incomplete. After a false start penalty, Jacobson sacked Carson for a 12-yard loss, giving Portland the ball back at its 36.
The next Bulldogs’ drive, which started at their 36, ended in a turnover as well.
After Elowitch ran for three yards, Knop hit senior Ben Stasium for a 15-yards, as Stasium scooped the pass just inches off the ground for the completion and a first down at the Oxford Hills 46. Again, a bad snap backed Portland up, in this case 15 yards, and after Elowitch was dropped for a four-yard loss, Knop threw the ball over the middle, but was intercepted by senior Michael Bonang, who returned it 19 yards to the Portland 30.
The Vikings again didn’t capitalize, as after Luksza ran for two yards and Bonang also picked up two yards, Carson was picked by Stasium, who returned the ball 20 yards for a first down at the 33.
With 3:06 left before halftime, the Bulldogs’ offense reawakened and drove for an important field goal.
Elowitch ran for three-yards, two-yards, then for five to move the chains. Elowitch then got the ball again, ran up the middle, broke multiple tackles and appeared end zone-bound before being tackled by the ankles at the Vikings’ 9. In the final minute of the half, Elowitch ran for four yards, Knop rolled left and was knocked out of bounds for a two-yard gain and after Elowitch was dropped for a one-yard loss, Portland had to rush its field goal unit on to the field and just before the horn, Vumpa calmly banged home a 20-yard kick to cut the Bulldogs’ deficit to 14-10 at the break.
“That’s one of our conditioning drills,” said Portland coach Jim Hartman. “We give the guys certain numbers of seconds to do it. They look at me like I’m stupid, but it won us a football game tonight.
“(Christo) just played a soccer game this afternoon and he got up here at 7-o-clock, stepped on the field and made that kick. He’s an amazing freshman.”
The Bulldogs had a 121-87 edge in first half yardage and got 102 yards from Elowitch, but two turnovers held them back.
Portland’s decision to defer possession to the second half paid huge dividends when it got the ball at its 35 to start and 17 plays, 65 yards and 9:33 later, produced a go-ahead touchdown.
The drive began with a five-yard Trefethen run. After Elowitch was held to one yard, Knop dropped back, eluded a defender and waited for Trefethen to break open before hitting him for five yards and a crucial first down at the 46. Trefethen ran for six yards to put the ball on the Oxford Hills side of the 50 and after Trefethen picked up two more yards, Elowitch gained three yards on third-and-2, stretching out to move the ball to the 43.
Elowitch gained two yards, Trefethen ran for four and after a false start penalty set up third-and-9 from the 42, Elowitch gained 11 yards for a first down at the 31. Elowitch ran for two yards, Trefethen gained three and after Elowitch ran for three yards, Elowitch got the ball on fourth-and-2 and ran to his right, gaining seven yards for a first down at the 16.
Trefethen ran for eight yards and Elowitch ran to the 2. The ball came loose, but possession stayed with the Bulldogs. After another false start penalty, Elowitch ran for two yards and on second-and-goal from the 5, Knop kept the ball on a bootleg to his left and with 2:24 left in the third quarter, he scored on a five-yard run.
“(The bootleg) was called ahead of time, but all the other people didn’t know, only me,” said Knop. “I felt like Peyton Manning running into the end zone. It felt good.”
Vumpa’s PAT made it 17-14.
“We ate up nine, 10 minutes, killed any momentum they could have and really set us up to do well,” Elowitch said.
The Vikings finally got their first second half possession with 2:18 on the clock, starting at their 27.
At that point of the game, Portland had run 53 plays to Oxford Hills’ 14 and the Bulldogs had held the ball over 27 of the nearly 34 minutes played.
The Vikings began promisingly with a six-yard run by Carson, but junior Jamal Moriba held LaFrance to no gain and Carson threw incomplete, forcing a punt.
Portland started at its 33 and after a false start penalty, Trefethen picked up three yards and Elowitch ran for six on the final play of the frame.
On the first snap of the fourth period, Elowitch was dropped for a two-yard loss and the Bulldogs were forced to punt.
With 11:16 remaining, after Elowitch punted for just 14 yards, Oxford Hills started at the Portland 49 and looked to retake the lead.
After Carson ran for three yards, he hit Turner for a dozen on a slant for a first down at the 34. After an incomplete pass, the Bulldogs jumped offsides, but a holding penalty backed the Vikings to the 38. After Carson found Luksza for seven yards and Pruett for five, he kept the ball on fourth-and-2 for a first down at the 23. After Carson gained four more yards, twisting and turning for extra yardage, LaFrance was held to no gain.
The next play proved critical, as Carson hit Luksza over the middle, Luksza caught the ball at the 5, broke a tackle and ran into the end zone for an apparent touchdown, but it was called back due to another holding call, putting the ball back on the 35. Carson scrambled for three yards, but on fourth-and-19, Carson threw incomplete and Portland held on downs at its 32.
The Bulldogs took over with 5:50 to play and hoped to run out the clock, but couldn’t do so.
Elowitch ran for eight-yards, then four more for a first down at the 44, but after Elowitch gained a yard, Trefethen picked up two and Knop was held to no gain, Portland was forced to punt.
With 2:41 on the clock, Oxford Hills started in good field position at its 43, but Carson threw incomplete and after a defensive holding flag on the Bulldogs, Carson twice threw incomplete before Elowitch acrobatically came down with an interception at the Bulldogs’ 33 with 2:19 left.
“We had to stay back because it was a passing situation and I dropped back, I looked at (Carson’s) eyes, he looked at the receiver, I made a break and caught the ball,” said Elowitch. “It was a catch that had to be made and I made it.”
A delay of game penalty backed Portland up five yards and after Elowitch ran for two yards, the Vikings called timeout. Elowitch ran for six more yards, setting up third-and-7 and after another timeout, Elowitch gained five yards, setting up fourth down and forcing the hosts to use their final timeout. After a false start penalty, Portland punted and Oxford Hills, without any timeouts, earned one final opportunity.
The Vikings got the ball at their 34 with 1:58 on the clock and after Carson scrambled for three yards, he twice threw incomplete.
The game came down to fourth-and-7 and Carson couldn’t move the chains, throwing incomplete one final time.
The Bulldogs started at the Oxford Hills 37 with 1:22 to go and after Knop twice took a knee, Portland was able to celebrate its 17-14 victory.
“Momentum was the biggest thing in this game,” Knop said. “Whoever gained momentum would roll over the other team. It was hard to get, but be we came out and got the final push. We had grit. You can’t beat winning a game like this.”
“The kids responded well,” Hartman said. “This is a gutty team. It took us a week or two to get Bonny Eagle out of our system. That’s gone now.”
The Bulldogs finished with 204 yards of offense and held the ball for 33 of 48 minutes.
Elowitch led the way with 169 yards on 34 carries.
“(Zack’s) special,” Hartman said. “He’s tough and gritty. We’ve had good runners, but he won’t go down and you can’t tackle him with one guy. Grant Jacobson didn’t get enough credit. He set the edge all night for Zack.”
Knop ran seven times for 14 yards and scored twice. He also completed 2-of-4 passes for 20 yards and an interception.
“Sam did a great job at the end of the game,” Hartman said. “He knew exactly what to do. He’s coming along.”
Trefethen ran 13 times for 46 yards.
Portland committed two turnovers and was penalized a whopping nine times for 69 yards.
Oxford Hills produced 123 yards of offense.
Carson was held to 25 yards rushing on eight attempts. He completed just 4-of-17 passes, good for 77 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
“We have a great D line that was able to get a lot of pressure on him,” said Elowitch. “We were able to keep him in check pretty much.”
“I think our defense ranks with anyone,” Hartman said. “We got pressure. Nate Kapongo has had a great year. He’s broken all the Portland sack records. (Senior) Koa (Farnsworth) had a great night and we blitzed our linebackers. We didn’t let (Carson) run. He’s more of a running threat than a passing threat.”
LaFrance carried six times for 45 yards and a score.
Pruett had two receptions for 58 yards and a touchdown.
The Vikings turned the ball over twice and were flagged four times for 45 yards.
“(Portland) dominated the line of scrimmage,” Oxford Hills coach Mark Soehren said. “Those two scores were great drives for them. I can’t imagine they averaged very much per carry, but it didn’t matter. They got three yards per carry, four downs and they’re driving the field on us and using most of the first and third quarters.”
Each team has one game left in the regular season, then will have a bye into the semifinal round of the playoffs.
Oxford Hills (second in Class A North) finishes at 0-6 Windham next Friday, while Portland hosts 1-6 South Portland in the annual “Battle of the Bridge” finale.
The Bulldogs are close enough to taste being the number one seed for the third time in four years and want desperately to lock it up.
“We want to win and we’ll do whatever it takes to win,” Knop said. “We love football. We want to make it to the state game. If we meet (Oxford Hills) in the playoffs, we’ll have to be as ready as they are, if not more.”
“This sets us up to go on from here and have momentum going into playoffs,” Elowitch said. “Homefield is everything for us. It’s so much easier playing on our own field and not worrying about getting on a bus and hearing another team’s crowd.”
“This is a statement win, but we still have a lot of discipline to clean up,” Hartman added. “We have South Portland next week and I won’t look past (Red Riots coach) Steve (Stinson). That will be a big game. It’s a lot easier to get to the state game playing at home.”
Oxford Hills 20 @ Portland 14
Class A North quarterfinal
Portland 21 @ Oxford Hills 6
@ Portland 36 Oxford Hills 7
Class A North semifinal
@ Portland 55 Oxford Hills 7
Portland 41 @ Oxford Hills 0
@ Portland 14 Oxford Hills 7
Portland 68 @ Oxford Hills 0