Portland drops a heartbreaker; Bulldogs let 21-point lead slip away in OT loss to Bangor

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PORTLAND—Portland and Bangor have been playing football since 1893 and it’s quite likely their previous 125 meetings never produced anything like this.

For two quarters and into a third Friday evening, the host Bulldogs resembled the championship contender that so many expected them to be this fall.

Then, everything changed.

Portland’s tumultuous season took an improbable turn at Fitzpatrick Stadium, when a 21-0 lead over visiting Bangor proved to be inadequate.

With the hosts seemingly in full control of the contest, the Rams began their comeback after senior Nick Graham’s nice kickoff return was followed by a stirring touchdown run from Graham after he appeared to be tackled for a loss.

If that wasn’t enough, Bangor junior running back extraordinaire Dane Johnson, who entered the game as the leading rusher in Eastern Class A, finally hit his stride and his 85-yard TD burst pulled the Rams within six points, 21-15, heading for the fourth period.

There, Bangor completed its comeback when Johnson scored from the 1 with 8:39 to play, but a bad snap on the extra point kept the contest deadlocked, 21-21.

Down the stretch, it appeared the Rams would prevail in regulation, but a stunning mistake on a punt deep in Portland territory kept that from happening and the game would go to overtime.

The Bulldogs got the ball first and punched it into the end zone when junior Joe Esposito scored his second touchdown of the night, but the extra point went awry and that gave Bangor a chance to win it.

It took the Rams just one play to do so, as Johnson scored on a 10-yard run and Graham finished what he started, an epic comeback, with the extra point and Bangor split town with a memorable 28-27 triumph.

The Rams earned their first victory at Fitzpatrick Stadium since beating Portland in the 2001 Class A Final, improved to 4-0 and dropped the frustrated and stunned Bulldogs to 2-2.

“You can’t say anything after a painful loss like this,” said Portland coach Jim Hartman. “We can’t keep making these mistakes. It’s a tough, tough lesson for these kids. Problem is, it’s halfway through the season and we’re still learning this stuff.”

Longtime rivalry renewed

Portland and Bangor first did battle on the gridiron way back in 1893, when Grover Cleveland was in his second term as president. The teams met regularly for a long time, then squared off hardly at all this century prior to a meeting last September (a 33-20 Bulldogs’ win in Bangor).

Portland has faced its share of challenges so far this season, beginning with having to replace several top players who graduated. The Bulldogs opened the season with a 41-3 loss at rival Cheverus, then trailed at halftime in their home opener against Deering before coming alive to prevail, 42-14. Last week, Portland won at Edward Little, 22-0.

Bangor rolled at Edward Little in the opener, 48-6, then handled visiting Scarborough (46-13) and downed host Deering (26-7).

Friday, under a clear and comfortable 62 degree sky, Portland looked to extend its all-time advantage over Bangor to 66-45 (with 15 ties), but the Rams continued their surge in one of the most amazing comebacks in a series which has spanned three centuries.

The Bulldogs, who haven’t exactly been quick starters this autumn, had a great first period.

Portland’s defense forced a three-and-out and the offense took over at the 48. Senior quarterback Jordan Talbot, who played in the opener at Cheverus, was pulled in favor of sophomore Nick Archambault against Deering, then sat out with injury while senior Ryan Ruhlin took over under center versus Edward Little, returned to the leadership role and guided the Bulldogs to a quick score.

Five-yard runs from Esposito and junior George Chaison-Lapine produced a first down, but a block in the back penalty backed Portland up. Then, on third-and-11 fom the Rams’ 43, Talbot rolled left and threw a gorgeous rainbow of a pass right into the arms of junior Austin Phillips, who caught the ball in stride and crossed the goal line for the first score of the game. Junior placekicker John Williams added the extra point and with 7:25 to play in the first quarter, the Bulldogs had a 7-0 advantage.

Portland would promptly double it.

On the third play of Bangor’s next series, junior quarterback Jeff Lewis was picked off by Archambault, who returned the ball 22 yards to the Rams’ 9.

Three plays later, Talbot swept to the right and scored from two yards out. Williams added the PAT and with 4:30 to go in the first, the Bulldogs enjoyed a 14-0 advantage.

Had Portland built on that score before halftime, it might have built an insurmountable lead, but it wasn’t to be.

After the Bulldogs forced a punt, a pair of bad center exchanges short-circuited a drive and forced a punt. Bangor then drove to midfield, but on fourth-and-inches, Rams coach Mark Hackett played it safe and punted away.

Portland then drove across midfield, aided by a Rams’ personal foul, but a bad snap led to a 13-yard loss and when Talbot was sacked by Bangor senior Jordan Ayer, the threat had disappeared.

Late in the half, the Rams went three-and-out, but the ensuing punt was fumbled and recovered by Bangor at the Portland 36.

Just when it appeared the visitors were going to get on the board, however, the Bulldogs’ defense came to life.

On first down, Lewis was sacked by Portland senior Jeremiah Israel-Copeland. An incomplete pass was followed by a nine-yard Johnson run, but the Rams had to punt and that sent the game to the break with Portland seemingly holding a safe lead, 14-0.

In the first 24 minutes, the Bulldogs boasted 88 yards of offense to just 43 for Bangor, but Portland had failed to deliver the knockout punch and that would come back to haunt the Bulldogs in the second half.

At the start of the third period, Portland drove from its 28 into Rams’ territory on a pair of nice runs from Esposito, but Bangor’s behemoth sophomore nose guard Nick Tapley threw Esposito for a loss and the Bulldogs soon found themselves having to punt.

That punt was a beauty, as Talbot pinned Bangor at its 1.

Portland’s defense rose to the occasion, allowing just one yard on three plays and a 30-yard punt from Rams senior punter Jake Fournier gave the Bulldogs possession at Bangor’s 32.

The hosts took advantage as Esposito ran for three yards and after consecutive Rams’ encroachment penalties, Esposito burst free and scored from 19 yards out. Williams’ PAT made it 21-0 Portland with 8:17 to go in the third period and the Bulldogs appeared on the verge of an easy win.

Not so fast.

The game was about to change and Graham made sure he turned the tide.

Graham received the ensuing kickoff at his 15 and found a seam, racing down the left sideline for 48 yards before Williams saved a touchdown by bringing him down at the Portland 37.

“I think that kick return set us up,” Graham said.

After Johnson picked up three yards, Graham swept right and was smothered by two tacklers.

What happened next altered the course of the contest.

Virtually everyone in the stadium thought Graham was brought down and he was, but problem was, he landed on a Bulldogs defender, his knee never hit the ground and Graham popped up and outran the confused pursuers to the end zone for a 34-yard touchdown.

“I ran to the outside and I put my hand down really quick,” said Graham. “I noticed that I didn’t put my knees down. I didn’t hear a whistle. I got back up and off to the end zone I went.”

“Graham had the energy,” Hackett said. “We didn’t block particularly well, but Graham sparked us. The rest of them just followed him.”

Bangor was primed to kick the extra point, but Portland jumped offsides, moving the ball to the 1. Johnson then ran it in for a two-point conversion and the Rams had a pulse, down, 21-8, with 7:19 to play in the third quarter.

Portland hoped to answer and appeared ready to do so when Talbot hooked up with Ruhlin for 14 yards, as Ruhlin made a gorgeous one-handed grab, but after Chaison-Lapine ran 22 yards into Bangor territory, the Bulldogs stalled and they had to punt.

Talbot pinned the Rams at their 15, but Johnson was about to show that field position was meaningless, as he took a handoff, found a big hole and raced to his left, up the sideline and he left the pursuit in his wake. Johnson’s 85-yard scamper and Graham’s ensuing PAT pulled Bangor within 21-15 with 2:37 still to play in quarter number three.

Now, it was just a question of when the Rams would catch up.

An Ayer sack ended Portland’s next drive. A bad snap on a punt gave Bangor the ball at the Bulldogs’ 32 and after the Rams were backed up 15 yards due to an illegal block penalty, the final play of the fateful third set Bangor up for the equalizer.

On first-and-25, Lewis dropped back and hit senior fullback Langston Hamer-Nagle with a short pass which turned into a 30-yard gain and a first down, a play which infuriated Hartman.

“The real crusher was letting (Hamer-Nagle) out,” Hartman said. “We had two guys who were supposed to cover him and neither one did. That was a backbreaker.”

The Rams began the fourth period with a first down at the Bulldogs’ 17. Three runs set up first-and-goal from the 5. After Johnson ran the ball to the 2, he picked up a yard, then, on third-and-goal from the 1, Johnson bulled into the end zone to tie the score.

Bangor wasn’t able to take the lead, however, as a low snap affected Graham’s extra point and it was blocked.

With 8:39 to play in regulation, the scoreboard read: Bangor 21 Portland 21.

Neither team scored the remainder of the fourth period.

The Bulldogs ran three plays and had to punt.

With 5:48 to play, the red-hot Rams took over at their 35 and began to drive for the go-ahead score, but a holding penalty pushed them back and on fourth-and-4 from the Portland 29, Graham was tackled short of the marker by Archambault.

The Bulldogs then had a chance to win it when they got possession at their 28 with 2:06 to go, but Esposito was thrown for a two-yard loss on first down and on second down, Tapley tackled senior Domenic Fagone for a six-yard loss.

Those two plays looked downright productive after what came next.

Talbot dropped back to pass on third-and-18, was pressured and got rid of the ball to his left, but the officials ruled no one was in the vicinity and called intentional grounding.

Not only did that penalty set up fourth down, but the spot foul put the ball on the 1, forcing Talbot to punt from the end zone.

What ensued was one of the stranger plays in this or any other season.

Talbot’s punt, under pressure, went almost straight up in the air and landed at the 10. Had it bounced backwards, Bangor might have had a first-and-goal. Instead, the ball bounced forward slightly and was about to die at the Bulldogs’ 12 before a Ram let it inadvertently hit leg. Talbot pounced on the football and Portland retained possession and for the moment, had averted disaster.

The Bulldogs were content to run out the clock and take their chances in overtime.

A session which would be quick and memorable.

In Maine high school football, overtime consists of each team getting the ball at the opponent’s 10 with four plays to score a touchdown, kick a field goal or fail to produce points.

Each team would cross the goal line on this night, but this one would be determined by the placekickers.

Portland went first and after Chaison-Lapine ran for two yards, Esposito got the ball and scored from the 8 for a 27-21 lead. Williams came on to extend the lead, but his kick hit the left upright and was ruled no good.

That meant if Bangor scored a TD and added the PAT, it would win.

The Rams, who had played from behind for so much of the night, weren’t about to extend the drama.

Johnson got the handoff on first down, appeared trapped, then bounced off not one tackler, but two and ran into the end zone to tie the score.

That brought on Graham to win it.

The same Graham who couldn’t convert the point after in the fourth quarter (which, in fairness was due to a bad snap, not his accuracy).

After Hartman called timeout to ice the kicker, Graham got a good snap, a good hold and his kick was true.

“I was confident,” Graham said. “I trust my snapper and holder. If you trust them, it will go in. It was a really good feeling.”

“We’ve struggled kicking,” Hackett said. “I asked (Nick) if he wanted to fake it, but he said, ‘No, Coach, I want to kick it.’ He kicked it through. That was huge.”

At 9:14 p.m., after two hours and 14 minutes of high drama, Bangor had won one of its more memorable regular season contests of recent vintage, 28-27.

“We just had to push really hard,” said Graham. “We came out with a fire in our belly. We pounded and pounded. We got one touchdown and that’s all it took. We were nervous (going into overtime), but we knew if we dug deep enough we could do it. We knew Portland’s a really good team. We knew if we beat them that people would know Bangor wasn’t a team to mess around with.”

“I think we just woke up,” Hackett said. “Portland’s a good football team. It’s huge. It’s resiliency. It’s showing we can come back against a good team at their place. It’s money in the bank. Guys were looking around and they had to find a way to do it and they found a way to do it.”

Statistically, Johnson stole the show for the Rams with 195 yards (140 of which came after halftime) and three TDs on 27 carries. Graham, who only touched the ball twice in the first half, had 56 yards and a score on eight rushing attempts. Lewis completed just one of his six pass attempts, but that hookup was the memorable 30-yarder to Hamer-Nagle. Bangor had 245 yards of offense (202 coming after halftime). The Rams were almost done in by nine penalties for 82 yards, but persevered.

Portland was led by Esposito’s 88 yards and two scores on 17 carries. Chaison-Lapine gained 50 yards on eight tries. Talbot completed three passes in seven attempts, good for 59 yards and a touchdown, and rushed five times for 11 yards and a score. Williams caught two passes for 45 yards and Ruhlin caught the other for 14. The Bulldogs, who had 182 of offense, were penalized four times for 39 yards.

“I attribute (the loss) to heart on their part and tough breaks on ours,” Hartman said. “We’re learning on the run. Unfortunately, we’ve had to learn against some good teams. Bangor’s a very good team.”

Second half

The regular season is now half over and both teams are looking to improve their playoff standing.

Bangor (third in the Eastern Class A Crabtree Points standings at press time) returns home Friday for a pivotal showdown against Windham (which is unbeaten heading into Saturday afternoon’s showdown at Cheverus). The Rams also host Lewiston and Oxford Hills and play at Cheverus.

This is a team that now must be taken seriously.

“We have more big games to come,” Graham said. “We’re ready to kick some (butt). We have a really good team. We’re quick and strong.”

“We’ll go one game at a time now,” said Hackett.

Portland (fourth in Eastern A) will host Oxford Hills Friday, then goes to Windham, welcomes Lewiston and closes at South Portland.

The Bulldogs’ hill is now much steeper to climb.

“We have to suck it up and go and find some offense,” Hartman said. “We have to be able to pass the ball. We have to block better. We have to get better blocking. We have to have better snaps. We have to run the table.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

Portland sophomore Dylan Bolduc (top) and junior Joe Esposito combine to tackle Bangor senior Langston Hamer-Nagle.

Portland junior George Chaison-Lapine tries to break a tackle attempt from Bangor sophomore John Clement.

Portland seniors Dominic DiMillo (left) and Josh Sullivan hold Bangor senior Langston Hamer-Nagle in check.

Portland junior running back Joe Esposito shakes Bangor junior Ben Crichton.

Portland senior Ryan Ruhlin puts pressure on Bangor junior quarterback Jeff Lewis.

Portland senior Cedric Smith drags down dangerous Bangor junior running back Dane Johnson.

Portland senior quarterback Jordan Talbot drops back and looks to throw.

Sidebar Elements


Portland sophomore Nick Archambault (12) whoops it up after his first quarter interception. The Bulldogs would build a 21-0 lead, but visiting Bangor roared back Friday night and pulled off a stunning 28-27 overtime decision.

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

Bangor 28 Portland 27 (OT)

B- 0 0 15 6 7- 28
P- 14 0 7 0 6- 27

First quarter
P- Phillips 43 pass from Talbot (Williams kick)
P- Talbot 2 run (Williams kick)

Second quarter
No scoring

Third quarter
P- Esposito 19 run (Williams kick)
B- Graham 34 run (Johnson rush)
B- Johnson 85 run (Graham kick)

Fourth quarter
B- Johnson 1 run (kick blocked)

Overtime
P- Esposito 8 run (kick failed)
B- Johnson 10 run (Graham kick)

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Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.