PORTLAND—With all eyes on Saturday’s Cheverus at Thornton Academy “Game of the Century,” Portland football coach Jim Hartman jokingly referred to Friday night’s battle against Scarborough as the “Public School Championship Game.”
Regardless of the moniker, it was one of the best games of the season.
While the contest didn’t have the magnitude of a title tilt, it was critical nonetheless and allowed the Bulldogs to make a powerful late season statement.
Portland and Scarborough went back-and-forth for four quarters, with the Bulldogs’ grind-it-out, chew-the-clock drives countered by quick strikes from the Dillon Russo-led Red Storm aerial attack.
Scarborough grabbed a 7-0 lead in the first period on a 44-yard scamper by junior Dan LeClair. Portland roared back behind TD runs from sophomore quarterback Ryan Ruhlin and junior workhorse Justin Zukowski, but Russo hit senior Greg Viola from 37 yards out for a 14-13 lead at halftime.
The Bulldogs went back on top, 19-14, when senior Nick Volger broke free for a 62-yard TD run in the third period, but with 6:23 left in the game, Russo and Viola hooked up again, this time from 17 yards out, and the Red Storm appeared en route to victory.
Instead, Portland embarked on a final scoring drive. An unexpected 40-yard pass play from Ruhlin to senior Joe Nielsen got the Bulldogs close and with 1:28 left, Ruhlin sneaked in from the 1. A pair of sacks denied Russo and Scarborough’s last gasp and the Bulldogs held on to win, 25-20, leaving both teams 5-2 with just one regular season game remaining.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Ruhlin. “It means a lot coming off a tough loss (at Biddeford last week). We were motivated. We knew we were playing a great team. To go on top at the end was a great feeling. We have a lot of confidence. We came into the huddle and said, ‘It’s time to go to work boys,’ and we did.”
Portland went 2-6 in 2011, but has made great strides in 2012 under Hartman, who came to the Bulldogs after leading Yarmouth to back-to-back undefeated championship seasons in Class C. Portland began the year with a 45-14 home romp over Massabesic. After a 42-0 loss at Cheverus, the Bulldogs won three straight, 34-0 over visiting Gorham, 13-7 at Bonny Eagle in overtime and 35-0 against visiting Noble, before being blanked last week at Waterhouse Field, 12-0, by Biddeford.
Scarborough struggled for much of its Class A history, but under coach Lance Johnson, a former longtime Bulldogs assistant, made the playoffs for the first time in Class A in 2010 and got back to the postseason a year ago, falling at Cheverus in the quarterfinals. This season, a prolific offense and opportunistic defense has spelled great success. The Red Storm blanked host Kennebunk in the opener, 22-0, made a big statement with a decisive 35-18 home win over Bonny Eagle, then handled visiting Windham, 27-12, and rallied to triumph at Deering, 28-21. The undefeated run ended with a 35-7 loss at Thornton Academy, but Scarborough did some positive things in that game and could argue the final score wasn’t representative of the distance between the squads. Last week, the Red Storm bounced back with a 58-0 drubbing of visiting Massabesic.
The teams had met just four previous times, with Portland holding a 4-0 advantage, winning by a composite 113-34 margin. The last team the teams squared off was in 2008, when the Bulldogs eked out a 13-12 victory at Scarborough.
Friday night’s game, played on a bitterly cold and windy evening with a kickoff temperature in the low 40s which only dropped as the night went on, saw four lead changes and neither squad hold more than a seven point advantage in 48 minutes of breathtaking football.
The contest started slowly as the Red Storm went three-and-out and after Portland got an initial first down on an 18-yard burst by Zukowski to the Scarborough 42, junior Jayvon Pitts-Young fumbled and the visitors recovered at their 47.
The Red Storm needed just four plays to get the jump.
After an incomplete Russo pass, a 4-yard run by LeClair and a 5-yard Russo-to-junior Charlie Raybine pass set up fourth-and-1 at the Bulldogs’ 44, LeClair took a handoff, burst through a hole on the left side of the line and ran untouched to the end zone. Viola’s extra point made it 7-0 Scarborough with 7:08 to go in the first quarter.
Portland took over on its 30 with 7:01 to go in the period and used up all of that time, as well 56 seconds at the start of the second quarter to draw even.
The drive was sparked by a 16-yard pass from Ruhlin to Zukowski on fourth-and-16 from the 24. Zukowski was stopped inches shy of the first down marker, but Ruhlin, on the first of several sneaks, fell forward for 2 yards and a first down. On third-and-four from the 48, Zukowski burst through for 12 yards. Steady running from Zukowski, Pitts-Young and junior Abe Marr set up a first-and-10 at the 13, but disaster nearly struck when a bad exchange put the ball on the ground. Luckily for the hosts, Pitts-Young came up with the ball. After a 4-yard run from Zukowski, a false start penalty set up third-and-14 from the 17, but on the final play of the opening stanza, Ruhlin ran for 10 yards to set up a manageable fourth-and-4 from the 7.
In the first 12 minutes, Portland had possession of the ball for 8:31, had run 18 plays to the Red Storm’s seven and had an 82-60 edge in yardage, yet trailed, 7-0.
That changed quickly in quarter number two.
Before the Bulldogs could run a play, Scarborough jumped offsides, making a fourth-and-4 into fourth-and-1 from the 4 after the ball was moved half the distance to the goal. Ruhlin then called his own number and got a first down at the 2. After another bad exchange, recovered by Zukowski, Ruhlin capped the 17-play, 70-yard, 7:57 march with a 2-yard sneak. Senior Kyle Reichert’s point after made it 7-7 with 11:04 to play before halftime.
Portland’s defense rode the momentum from the touchdown and forced a three-and-out and the offense came back on the field and drove for a go-ahead score.
Starting at the Red Storm 46 after a short punt, Zukowski gained 8 yards and a 15-yard facemask penalty was tacked on, giving the Bulldogs first-and-10 at the 23. After Zukowski was held for no gain, Volger picked up 7, setting up third down. The ball came to Zukowski, who burst through a hole and lowered his head just before the end zone, carrying a tackler across the goal line. Zukowski threaded his way inside the right pylon and Portland had the lead. Despite a missed extra point by Reichert, the Bulldogs were up, 13-7, with 7:05 to play in the half.
Scarborough’s quick strike offense was on full display on its next series and it only took the Red Storm 1:42 to march 64 yards to retake the lead. After LeClair gained 5 yards on first down, Russo found junior Ben Greenberg for 17 yards and a first down at the Portland 42. Russo kept the ball for 5 yards, then dropped back and zipped a pass over the middle to Viola on a post pattern. Viola, with a step on the secondary, did the rest, racing into the end zone to complete a 37-yard touchdown. Viola added the point after and with 5:17 to go before halftime, Scarborough was back on top, 14-13.
The remainder of the half was Keystone Kops material, as the squads combined to fumble the ball away three times.
The Bulldogs appeared to be driving for a go-ahead score after the Red Storm touchdown, moving from their 32 deep into Scarborough territory behind runs of 7- and 13-yards from Volger and 6-, 11- and 11- from Zukowski, but on second-and-6 from the Red Storm 15, Marr fumbled and Scarborough junior Brendon Smith came up with the ball.
The visitors had 1:34 to work with, plenty of time for Russo for do damage, but the quarterback was sacked on first down, fumbled and Portland senior Verny Gayle pounced on the ball at the Red Storm 14, seemingly setting up the Bulldogs with a golden opportunity.
They didn’t take advantage.
After a Scarborough offsides penalty moved the ball to the 9, Zukowski ran twice for 4 yards, setting up third-and-1 from the 5. Ruhlin kept the ball and gained 2 yards for a first down, but he lost possession and another fumble gave the ball back to the Red Storm at its 3 with 36.9 seconds to go.
Scarborough was content to run two plays into the line and at the break, still clung to a 14-13 advantage, even though Portland had a 199-125 advantage in yardage and 16:07-7:53 edge in time of possession.
Mistakes had held the Bulldogs back, something that was addressed in the locker room.
“We do this every game,” Hartman lamented. “It’s part of learning how to be a disciplined football team. We had penalties and missed blocks. Our linemen made two or three tackles ourselves. We told them we’re as good as (Scarborough), just come out and focus and play your game.”
There wouldn’t be much separation in the second half either.
The Bulldogs got the ball first, but went three-and-out. Reichert then averted disaster on the punt, when he managed to scoop up a low snap and get a punt off.
The Red Storm began at their 38, but Russo threw three straight incomplete passes.
Portland got the ball back at its 38 and immediately found the end zone as Volger took a handoff, started left, cut back right and outran the pursuit all the way to the end zone for a 62-yard score. A two-point conversion pass failed, but the Bulldogs were back in the lead, 19-14, with 9:39 remaining in the third.
The Portland defense held firm on Scarborough’s next series, as a sack by Reichert forced a punt and the hosts embarked on another time consuming drive that drained the final 5:48 of the period and extended into the fourth, but it didn’t result in any points that could have created some breathing room.
Starting at their 9, the Bulldogs had two 8-yard runs from Zukowski, a 10-yard scamper from Ruhlin and a late hit penalty to move to midfield. A 15-yard burst from Pitts-Young moved the chains again and Zukowski got the ball down to the Red Storm 16 before Scarborough jumped offsides on fourth-and-2 to give the hosts another first down at the 11. Portland wouldn’t find the end zone, however. Marr rushed for 2 yards on the final play of the third quarter and when play resumed in the fourth, Zukowski was held to a yard and Pitts-Young had the same luck. Reichert came on to try a 25-yard field goal, but it was wide left and short and the visitors had dodged a bullet.
The Red Storm then drove for the lead.
Starting at the 20 with 10:27 to go, Russo got the march started with a 19-yard run. Senior Merrick Madden’s lone carry of the game was next and he somehow broke a Zukowski tackle in the backfield, which would have been for a loss of at least 5 yards, and wound up gaining 8. Russo ran for the first down, then ran 9-yards for another at the Portland 38. After an incomplete pass, Russo scrambled, then hit Raybine out of the backfield for 17 more yards and a first down at the 21. LeClair gained 3 yards and Russo ran for 1. Then, on third-and-6 from the 17, Russo and Viola hooked up again, as Russo threw into double coverage in the end zone, but Viola came down with the ball, capping a 10-play, 80-yard, 4:04 drive. After a costly delay of game penalty, Russo’s two-point conversion pass fell incomplete, but with 6:23 remaining, Scarborough had a 20-19 advantage.
The Bulldogs have grown up a lot this fall and have gradually learned to believe in themselves and that they can win. That was on full display on their next drive, one that won’t soon be forgotten in Portland lore.
Beginning at their 23, Zukowski and Volger each ran for 4 yards and on third-and-2, Zukowski barreled through the line for 15. There were offsetting penalties on the play, but the Bulldogs’ holding transgression was trumped by a late hit on the Red Storm and Portland earned a first down at its 40. After Pitts-Young ran for 5, Zukowski did the same and the hosts had a first down at midfield. Three plays later, on third-and-7 from the Scarborough 47, with all eyes on Ruhlin, Pitts-Young, Volger and Zukowski, an unexpected hero turned the tide.
Ruhlin dropped back to throw and lo and behold, spotted Nielsen wide open behind the secondary. The pass caused Nielsen to hold up at about the 25, but he still managed to gain additional yardage, carrying a tackler down the to the 7.
“Usually on the play, I look for Zukowski in the flat, but Nielsen came to me earlier and said, ‘Check me out. I’ve been open,'” said Ruhlin. “Sure enough, he was open by 20 yards. I just threw it to him.”
“That pass was huge,” Hartman said. “We had noticed that during the game, that they were taking our run away. We knew we could lull them to sleep and get deep. Joey said he could get deep. He was just wide open.”
The Bulldogs were in business, but those final seven yards were no picnic.
Zukowski gained a yard on first down. Ruhlin kept the ball and got to the 4 on second down. Then, on third down, Zukowski got the call and fell forward just shy of the goal line. Several Portland players felt he got in, but it would come down to a fourth-and-inches.
Ruhlin would do it himself, taking the handoff and pushing forward. Ruhlin fell to the turf, but managed to extend the ball to the end line. The side judge signaled touchdown and with 1:28 to play, the Bulldogs had the lead.
“The line was great tonight,” said Ruhlin. “We found holes and went through them. The sneak worked well tonight. I was a little nervous with the game on the line. I think the tip of the ball was on the goal line. Fraction of an inch. That’s all that matters. It was a great feeling.”
“I thought I got in (the play before), but give it to the quarterback,” said Zukowski.
“Why risk the handoff?” Hartman added. “We knew what they would do. It was mano-a-mano. We felt we could do that. He said he scored by the length of the football. Our boys wanted it.”
After the 12-play, 77-yard, 4:49 drive, Portland went for two, but Volger’s run was stopped and Russo would have time to attempt a rally.
Greenberg returned the ensuing kickoff 17 yards to the Scarborough 37, giving Russo 77 seconds to drive 63 yards.
The drive began auspiciously as Russo broke free and ran for 22 yards for a first down at the Bulldogs’ 41, but that’s as close as the Red Storm would get.
Russo dropped back on the next snap, but was corralled and sacked by junior Luigi Grimaldi for a 5-yard loss.
“We just love playing D,” Zukowski said. “We like it better than offense.”
Gayle got to Russo on the next play, sacking him for a loss of 9.
“I’m really happy for Luigi and Verny,” Hartman said. “Luigi is strong and fast. Verny had to play tackle all year and gets double teamed. This is the first game he’s played nose guard and he had several big plays.”
Gayle’s sack kept the clock running and as time wound down, Russo had to spike the ball to stop the clock and set up a win-or-go-home fourth-and-24 from the Scarborough 45. This time, Russo managed to get a pass off, but it didn’t reach its target and with 31 seconds left, the Bulldogs got the ball back.
Ruhlin took a knee and that was all she wrote.
Portland 25 Scarborough 20.
“It feels pretty good,” said Zukowski. “We’re bringing tradition back to Portland High. That’s what all the coaches preach and that’s what we’re trying to do. We talked about penalties and turnovers all game. We knew we couldn’t have a penalty or a turnover. They played great D, but we got one at the end. Last week made us mad. We just focused on this game. Scarborough played well, but we wanted it.”
“It’s an enormous win for Portland High,” Hartman said. “This helps us believe in ourselves. (The guys) were (mad). They were embarrassed last week. I coached them a little differently this week. I got the guys way too tight last week and that’s my mistake. I’m still learning them. This week, I let them be a little loose. I pushed them hard, but didn’t tighten them up. They’re learning to play football the old fashioned way. I was pleased with how we kept (Scarborough) off balance. It’s the first week I’ve felt really comfortable calling the game with this group. We have to get our kids used to playing this style of football. If we can do that next week, it’s a pretty good first year.”
The final statistics favored the hosts, who had a 421-225 advantage in total yardage, 348 of which came on the ground.
Zukowski ran the ball 29 times for 167 yards and scored a touchdown. Volger gained 105 yards and had a TD on nine rushes. Ruhlin scored twice and gained 30 yards on seven tries. Pitts-Young picked up 37 yards on 11 carries and junior Abe Marr rushed for 9 yards on three attempts. Ruhlin only threw four times, but completed three passes for 62 yards. Zukowski had two receptions for 22 and Nielsen had the huge 40 yard gain. Portland fumbled the ball away three times and was penalized six times for 42 yards.
For Scarborough, Russo finished 6-of-15 for 101 yards and two TDs. Viola caught three passes for 62 yards and two scores. Raybine caught two balls for 22 yards. Greenberg had one reception for 17. On the ground, LeClair had 78 yards and a TD on 11 carries, Russo gained 59 yards on six rushes, Raybine had four attempts, good for 3 yards and Madden rushed once for 8 yards. The Red Storm was flagged seven times for 63 yards and committed one turnover.
Coach Johnson could not be reached for comment on the game.
Scarborough (clinging to third place in the Western Class A Crabtree Points standings) closes Friday at home versus 0-7 Gorham. The Red Storm look to bounce back and hopes Portland gets upset so it can stay in the No. 3 spot.
Portland (fourth, but breathing down Scarborough’s neck in the standings) finishes the regular season at 1-6 South Portland next Saturday in the “Battle of the Bridge.” The Bulldogs hope to snap a two-year losing streak to the Red Riots and jump up to the third spot.
“Battle of the Bridge, baby,” Zukowski said. “We have to stay focused and work on penalties and turnovers. This is only good for a week.”
“We’ll enjoy this and get ready for South Portland next week,” Ruhlin said. “We’ve matured as a group and have come together. We’re still making some mistakes here and there, but it’s a great feeling. We’ll come ready to play like we did tonight. We’ll prepare the same.”
“We are just focused on playing one game at a time,” Hartman added. “Hopefully the kids build on this. It’s my job to make sure there isn’t a letdown.”
Portland junior Justin Zukowski, who was a workhorse all night, tries to shake the tackle of Scarborough junior Jake MacDoanld.
Scarborough senior quarterback Dillon Russo breaks the tackle of Portland junior Abe Marr.
Scarborough junior Ben Greenberg runs with the ball.
Portland sophomore quarterback Ryan Ruhlin dives for the goal line.
Portland senior Joe Nielsen goes up for a critical 40-yard reception during the Bulldogs’ winning drive in the fourth quarter.
Portland sophomore quarterback Ryan Ruhlin drops back to throw.
Portland junior Jayvon Pitts-Young breaks free.
Scarborough junior Dan LeClair breaks free for a 44-yard touchdown run in the first period.
Scarborough senior Merrick Madden leaps over the tackle attempt of Portland sophomore Domenic Fagone.
Portland senior Nick Volger knocks the ball away from Scarborough junior Brendon Smith.
Portland senior Nick Volger (23) and junior Jayvon Pitts-Young celebrate a score during the Bulldogs’ thrilling 25-20 home win over Scarborough Friday night.
More photos below.
S- 7 7 0 6- 20
P- 0 13 6 6- 25
S- LeClair 44 run (Viola kick)
P- Ruhlin 2 run (Reichert kick)
P- Zukowski 16 run (kick failed)
S- Viola 37 pass from Russo (Viola kick)
P- Volger 62 run (pass failed)
S- Viola 17 pass from Russo (pass failed)
P- Ruhlin 1 run (run failed)
Portland 13 @ Scarborough 12
@ Portland 14 Scarborough 0
@ Portland 40 Scarborough 14
Portland 46 @ Scarborough 8