WINDHAM—Amid a season full of adversity, Portland’s football team always fought to the finish.
Never was that better illustrated than by the Bulldogs’ effort Friday evening at Windham in the Eastern Class A semifinals.
Growing pains, tough losses, a forfeit and off-field distractions were about to be rendered moot by a terrific effort as Portland clung to a lead late in the fourth quarter.
In the end, however, the third-ranked Bulldogs were done in by too many mistakes and one big play by the second-seeded Eagles.
Four weeks after upsetting Windham on the same field, Portland enjoyed advantages of 7-0, 14-7 and 17-14, but needing perhaps one defensive stop to punch their ticket to the regional final, the Bulldogs weren’t able to seal the deal.
After the Eagles got close on a long pass play, Portland needed a stop on fourth-and-goal, but Windham sophomore quarterback Desmond Leslie willed his way into the end zone to put the hosts on top to stay.
After a final Bulldogs’ drive was held in check, the Eagles ran out the clock on their 21-17 victory and handed Portland a painful setback.
Windham improved to 8-1, beat the Bulldogs in the postseason for the first time in three tries, advanced to next weekend’s Eastern A Final to battle either 7-1 Cheverus or 6-3 Bangor and ended Portland’s campaign at 6-4 in the process.
“It was a hell of a game,” said Bulldogs coach Jim Hartman. “As upset as I am about losing, I’m so proud of those boys. They were dealt some serious adversity. Every week it was something, but they played their hearts out.”
The regular season meeting at Windham came on a sunsplashed afternoon, but Friday’s showdown came amid 41 degree temperatures with a 16 mile-per-hour wind making it feel 10 degrees cooler.
Portland came into the game trusting that its us-against-the-world attitude would continue to carry it through. The Bulldogs won six of eight regular season games, but had to forfeit their 42-14 home triumph over Deering from Sept. 12 after it was learned they had used an ineligible player. Portland got its revenge against the Rams last weekend with a 28-7 quarterfinal round victory.
Windham only slipped once in the regular season, against Portland (a 12-6 setback), and as the No. 2 seed, earned a quarterfinal round bye.
In addition to their win in Week Six, the Bulldogs also won the previous two playoff encounters against the Eagles: 35-21 in the 2012 quarterfinals and 55-7 in last year’s semifinals.
Friday, Portland did enough to win, but still fell painfully short.
Windham got the ball first, but the Bulldogs’ defense stood tall, as a big hit from senior Jeremiah Israel-Copeland on a third down run by Windham junior running back Dylan Koza forced a punt.
Portland then marched 56 yards in 4 minutes, 24 seconds to take the lead.
On the third play of the drive, the Bulldogs appeared to hit paydirt, as senior quarterback Jordan Talbot, after colliding with sophomore Nick Archambault after taking the snap, threw a pass to sophomore Jake Knop downfield. Knop broke free and ran into the end zone, but behind the play, a block in the back penalty negated the score and put the ball at the Eagles’ 17. After Talbot ran for five-yards, junior Joe Esposito picked up two and Talbot moved the chains with a four-yard run, Knop moved the ball to the 1, where Talbot capped the nine-play drive and bulled in for the game’s first score.
With 5:31 to play in the opening stanza, junior placekicker John Williams kicked the extra point and Portland had a 7-0 lead.
Windham got its offense going on the next series, but couldn’t produce points.
After Leslie ran for 18 yards, junior Griffin Jacobson gained 21 into Bulldogs territory. On the next snap, Koza ran free for 25, setting up a first down at the 18, but the next three plays only gained eight yards and on fourth-and-2 from the 10, Leslie kept the ball, but was stood up for no gain, giving Portland the ball back at its 10 late in the quarter.
The Eagles defense forced a three-and-out and regained possession at their 37. Eleven plays, 63 yards and 5:04 later, they drew even.
A 14-yard run from senior Tanner Laberge on the final play of the opening period put Windham in Bulldogs territory. On the second snap of the second quarter, Leslie hit Jacobson for a 16-yard completion. After Koza broke a pair of tackles and picked up eight yards to move the chains on third-and-5, Koza ran for four yards, then for six more, putting the ball at the 8, where Leslie ran in for the score on third-and-inches. Senior Josh Dugas added the point-after and with 7:43 to play before halftime, the game was deadlocked, 7-7.
Undaunted, Portland roared right back.
Starting at the 20 after a touchback, Talbot ran for 13 yards and a first down. On third-and-12, he gained 25 more and a late hit penalty was tacked on for 15 additional yards, putting the ball at the Windham 22. A bad handoff and a 6-yard loss set up fourth-and-11 from the 23, but Talbot’s knuckleball of a throw was hauled in by Knop at the 1 and two plays later, Talbot scored on a 1-yard run with 1:42 to go before the break. Williams’ PAT gave the Bulldogs a 14-7 lead and seemingly momentum to take into halftime, but Windham embarked on the biggest drive of the game to that point.
Taking over on their 36 with 102 seconds left, the Eagles marched into Portland territory behind a 10-yard run from Leslie and another 10-yard burst from Koza. After Leslie hit junior Eric Webb (remember that name) for 12 yards, Koza ran for 11. Leslie was held to no gain on the next snap and Windham had to use its last timeout, but with 25.6 seconds to play before halftime, Leslie threw a slant to senior Zach Davis for a score from 14-yards out and Dugas’ extra point forged a 14-14 tie at the break.
Things remained taut in a scoreless third period.
Portland got the ball first, but after gaining an initial first down on a nine-yard Talbot to Esposito pass, the drive stalled and the Bulldogs had to punt.
Windham gave the ball right back when a fumbled exchange was recovered by Israel-Copeland, but Portland, despite great field position, went backwards and had to punt the ball back.
The Eagles began at their 38, but went three-and-out. The Bulldogs then marched from their 25 into Windham territory, but on third-and-6 from the 47, Talbot was thrown for a four-yard loss by Laberge and Portland had to punt again.
As the third period gave way to the fourth, the Eagles could do nothing and a Leslie pass was intercepted by Knop, who returned the ball to the Windham 18.
The Bulldogs had a golden opportunity to go back on top by a touchdown, but after two Talbot runs gained six yards, he tried again, but was thrown for a two-yard loss. Facing fourth-and-4 from the 12, Hartman sent Williams on to the field and Williams continued his accurate kicking by hooking his 29-yard field goal attempt inside the right upright for a 17-14 lead with just 9:06 to play.
Portland, which had come up with big defensive plays all season, needed perhaps one more to clinch this victory, but instead, the Eagles would come up big when it mattered most.
Starting from its 26, Windham got a big break when, instead of facing third-and-7 after Leslie threw incomplete, it benefited from a roughing the passer penalty and earned a first down at the 44. Three plays later, on third-and-4 from midfield, Leslie moved the chains with a five-yard run. After Koza ran for a yard, Leslie dropped back and launched a rainbow down the right sideline, which Webb hauled in and took to the 5 before Knop took him down.
“It was a pass play and our motion brought over the safety,” Webb said. “Desmond made a great read. The line blocked everyone. The motion froze the defensive back.”
Portland wasn’t about to let the hosts reach the end zone easily, however, as sophomore Dylan Bolduc upended Koza for just a one yard gain on first down. After Leslie gained a yard on second down, Koza corkscrewed his way to the edge of the goal line on third down, but the Eagles weren’t in yet and had only one more play to hit paydirt.
In the biggest play of the night, Leslie kept the ball and moved the pile to break the plane with 3:39 to play. Dugas’ PAT gave Windham a 21-17 lead, meaning the Bulldogs needed a touchdown to win.
They would have their chance.
Starting at the 20 after a touchback, Portland got a clutch 17-yard Talbot-to-Knop pass, plus an Eagles’ personal foul penalty, to set up first down at the 48. On the next snap, Talbot hit senior Ryan Ruhlin for 12 more yards, but an illegal touching penalty negated the gain, moved the ball back to the 44 and produced a loss of downs. Talbot ran for one yard, then threw two straight incompletions, the second coming after a receiver slipped, and with 1:39 to play, the Eagles took over at the Bulldogs’ 45.
With no Portland timeouts remaining, Leslie was able to take a knee on three consecutive snaps and that drained the clock as Windham held on to prevail, 21-17.
“It was a great team effort out there to get that ‘W,'” Webb said. “Portland’s played us tough for years. It’s a new rivalry. It’s just a tough matchup. They play hard-nosed just like us, but we believe in ourselves. We faced adversity. We played the full 48 minutes, which you have to do in the playoffs.”
“Windham’s a good football team,” Hartman said. “They made plays.”
The Eagles got 109 yards on 23 carries from Koza. Leslie ran for 34 yards and two scores on 10 carries and threw for 82 yards with a touchdown and an interception on 5-of-8 passing. Webb caught two balls for 51 yards.
Windham was penalized six times for 50 yards and turned the ball over twice, but found a way to advance.
Not quite enough
Portland had 233 yards of offense (140 of which came in the first half). Talbot gained 86 yards and had two touchdowns on 27 carries. He completed 8-of-11 passes for 127 yards.
“(Jordan) played his best game,” Hartman said. “He threw the ball well.”
Knop had four receptions for 91 yards, as well as a TD which was called back.
“(Jake) made plays,” said Hartman. “We’ve held him out of games because he’s so little, but every week we’ve had to re-do our offense.”
The Bulldogs were hindered by seven turnovers for 76 yards.
“It’s a tough bunch of kids,” Hartman said. “The Deering fiasco, which could have taken the heart out of a lot of teams, didn’t bother these guys.”
One more obstacle
Windham moves on to the Eastern A Final next Saturday, either at Cheverus or at home versus Bangor (the Stags host the Rams Saturday afternoon).
The Eagles split their prior two playoff meetings with the Stags, winning, 7-6, in the slop in the 2009 Western A Final and falling, 34-27, at Cheverus in the 2010 Western A quarterfinals.
The Eagles’ only previous playoff meeting with the Rams was the most memorable victory in program history, a 35-21 triumph in the 2009 Class A state final.
Portland, meanwhile, has to look ahead to 2015, a season which should see more triumph for this proud program.
“We’re excited for (playing Deering on) Thanksgiving,’ Hartman said. “We’re excited for next year. We played four sophomores in the backfield at times. We have a future for sure. We’ll keep growing the program.”
Portland seniors Cedric Smith (right), Dan Marzilli and Jeremiah Copeland combine to tackle Windham sophomore quarterback Desmond Leslie.
Portland senior Ryan Ruhlin tackles Windham junior Dylan Koza.
Portland sophomore Jake Knop turns the corner on a run.
Portland junior Joe Esposito tries to block Windham senior Josh Dugas’ extra point.
Portland sophomore Dylan Bolduc stands up Windham junior Dylan Koza for no gain.
Portland junior John Williams boots an extra point out of the hold of senior Ryan Ruhlin.
Previous Portland stories
Cheverus 41 Portland 3
Portland 42 Deering 14
Bangor 27 Portland 21 (OT)
Portland 12 Windham 6
Previous Windham stories
Windham 35 Cheverus 7
Portland 12 Windham 6
Portland senior Jordan Talbot breaks a tackle during Friday’s Eastern A semifinal at Windham. Despite Talbot’s strong play, the Bulldogs’ season ended with a 21-17 loss to the Eagles.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.
Windham 21 Portland 17
P- 7 7 0 3- 17
W- 0 14 0 7- 21
P- Talbot 2 run (Williams kick)
W- Leslie 8 run (Dugas kick)
P- Talbot 1 run (Williams kick)
W- Davis 14 pass from Leslie (Dugas kick)
P- Williams 29 FG
W- Leslie 1 run (Dugas kick)