PORTLAND—There’s something about the powerhouse Windham Eagles that brings out the best in the Portland Bulldogs.
Especially the Bulldogs’ defense.
After giving the Eagles fits in two games a year ago, including a narrow and agonizing playoff loss, Portland welcomed the Class A North favorites to Fitzpatrick Stadium Friday night.
While the Bulldogs were viewed as the underdog, they’re always at their best when they have something to prove, they’re even better when they line up opposite the Eagles and on this night, they delivered a command performance and produced a signature victory.
Portland repeatedly shot itself in the foot in the first half, turning the ball over in its own territory on three different occasions, but all three times, the defense stood tall and those three opportunities produced only three Windham points, a 32-yard field goal from senior Robert Innis midway through the second quarter.
It looked as if the Eagles would take that lead to halftime, but after getting a fraction of a second put back on the clock for a final play from the Bulldogs’ 33, Windham instead looked on in abject horror as Portland made the play that turned momentum for good.
At the horn, Eagles senior quarterback Desmond Leslie let a Hail Mary pass fly in the direction of the end zone, but Bulldogs junior Dylan Bolduc intercepted it at the Portland 3 and took off the other way.
Bolduc had the left side to himself until he had to cut back at the end of his return to elude one final tackler and a convoy of Bulldogs escorted him into the end zone for a stunning touchdown which put Portland up, 7-3.
The Bulldogs then got the ball to start the second half and after being forced to punt, Portland instead dialed up the razzle-dazzle, as junior Nick Archambault hit senior Jake Hunnewell for a critical first down and that set the stage for the booming right leg of senior placekicker John Williams, who drilled a 42-yard field goal for a 10-3 lead early in the third period.
From there, it was up to the Bulldogs’ defense and they rose to the occasion time and again, slamming the door on the heretofore unstoppable Eagles en route to a statement-making 10-3 victory.
Portland improved to 3-0, earned the inside track for the top seed in the region and dropped Windham to 2-1 in the process.
“The kids played well,’ said Bulldogs coach Jim Hartman. “We knew we coughed that one up last year and we should have had it. I’m really proud. They’re learning how to play football and getting better. They’re just playing the game extremely well. The kids showed me guts and toughness. It’s a tough, tough team.”
Prior to Friday’s contest, the teams had met 12 times (dating to 2005), with each squad winning six (see sidebar, below).
Last fall, Portland went to Windham and shocked the undefeated Eagles, 12-6, in October, then returned on a frigid early November night for the Eastern A semifinals, which saw the Bulldogs hold a lead until 3:39 remained in the fourth quarter, but ultimately lose, 21-17,
That marked the third straight postseason in which the squads squared off.
This fall, both teams started 2-0.
Windham dominated host Lewiston (57-8) and visiting Bangor (42-0), while Portland enjoyed an impressive Opening Night win at Scarborough (47-26) before downing visiting Edward Little (33-0). In both games, however, the Bulldogs committed far too many penalties and mental mistakes and Portland came in to Friday’s contest knowing it had to play a clean game.
The Bulldogs didn’t do that and did little on offense, but still managed to come away with an inspirational win.
Thanks to a defense that was simply superb.
Portland won the opening coin toss, but in what proved to be a wise decision, deferred possession to the second half and went on defense.
With the kickoff temperature at 72 degrees (31 degrees warmer than the last time the squads did battle), Williams, who was drilling field goals in pregame from 57 yards, booted the ball into the end zone for a touchback.
The Eagles got runs of two- and five-yards from senior Griffin Jacobson, then received a gift first down when the Bulldogs jumped offsides. After junior Kyle Houser ran for two yards, Archambault stuffed Houser for no gain and Windham committed a false start penalty. On third-and-13, Houser gained seven, but the Eagles had to punt.
Then, the visitors got their first break.
Jacobson’s punt was mishandled by Portland junior Jake Knop and Windham junior Cam Hoffses pounced on the loose football at the Bulldogs’ 29 to seemingly set the stage for the first score.
It didn’t happen, as the Bulldogs’ defense responded.
After Houser lost a yard on first down, Eagles junior quarterback Desmond Leslie threw incomplete. After seniors Joe Fusco and Dan Marzilli threw Houser for a two-yard loss, Houser ran for five, but Portland took over on downs at its 27.
The Bulldogs’ first offensive play resulted in a false start, which was a sign of things to come. Senior George Chaison-Lapine then had consecutive runs of one yard and Chaison-Lapine caught a 10-yard pass from junior quarterback Issiah Bachelder, but Portland had to punt the ball back to Windham, which started at its 30 after it was backed up by a block-in-the-back penalty.
On the second play of their drive, the Eagles made noise, as Desmond threw a screen pass to senior Mitchell Eskilson, who rumbled 50 yards to the Bulldogs’ 20. After Houser ran for three yards and Windham committed a false start, Leslie threw incomplete and Houser ran for seven on third-and-12, setting up a fourth-and-5 from the 15. Eagles coach Matt Perkins elected to go for the field goal and Innis’ 32-yard attempt was no good, wide to the right.
Late in the quarter, Portland started at its 20, but after Chaison-Lapine ran for 14 yards and senior Joe Esposito was held to one, a fumbled exchange resulted in turnover number two as Windham sophomore Justin Labrecque recovered at the Bulldogs’ 34.
As the first period gave way to the second, Houser ran for three yards and Leslie did the same on a keeper. On the first play of the new quarter, Houser was stuffed by Esposito for no gain and on fourth down, Leslie threw incomplete, giving Portland possession again at its 28.
“Penalties and turnovers hurt us and bad field position really hurt us, but we’re confident in our defense,” said Archambault. “We think we can stop anybody with our speed and physicality. It wasn’t ideal to be so far back in our territory. It was really frustrating, but we knew we could step up.”
This time, the Bulldogs, after an illegal motion penalty, gave the ball away on their first play, as a Bachelder pass along the left sideline was intercepted by Eskilson at the Portland 47.
This time, the Eagles capitalized, but not with a touchdown.
Driving 31 yards on 10 plays in nearly five minutes, Windham got close, but couldn’t finish.
After Knop broke up a pass to the end zone on first down, Leslie hit Eskilson for seven yards and Leslie ran for 14 more to move the chains. After two Jacobson runs gained just four yards, Leslie burst for 13 to set up a first-and-goal at the 9. Leslie ran for six, then two, to set up a third-and-goal at the 1, but after Leslie was held to no gain on a sneak, the Eagles took a drive-killing unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and were backed up to the 16. Innis came on for the field goal and this time, his 32-yard bid was through the uprights for a 3-0 lead with 6:45 to go before halftime.
Portland appeared in good shape to start its next drive after Bolduc returned the kickoff 32 yards to the 36, but the Bulldogs wouldn’t be able to produce points.
After a false start, Chaison-Lapine bounced outside for 17 yards and a first down. After a fumbled exchange, Windham jumped offsides and Chaison-Lapine danced around one tackler before picking up eight yards for a first down at the Eagles’ 40. Another false start penalty ensued and after two Chaison-Lapine runs gained a total of six yards, Bachelder was thrown for a six-yard loss, necessitating a punt.
With 2:34 to go before halftime, Windham started at its 28 and looked to add some points.
The Eagles got a first down on runs of three yards by Houser, four by Jacobson and five by Leslie. Leslie then hit Eskilson for seven yards and after Jacobson ran for two, Houser broke free for 18 yards to the Portland 33.
While those on hand thought time expired in the half on the Houser burst, Windham clamored for one more play and the officials put 0.1 seconds on the board.
No one expected what happened next as the visitors learned you have to be careful what you ask for.
With seemingly nothing to lose, the Eagles decided to go for it all, as their receivers dashed for the end zone and Leslie threw the ball toward the goal line.
But instead of connecting with a teammate, Leslie’s pass fell into the eager and waiting arms of Bolduc at the 3. Bolduc came down with the ball and saw a lot of open space ahead of him down the left sideline. Bolduc, who finds another gear when he has the ball in his hands, raced deep into Windham territory until it was clear he only had one man to beat. With Esposito making a block on Leslie, Bolduc cut back and waltzed into the end zone for a jawdropping score as the Portland sideline went bonkers.
“(The officials) put a second back on and we didn’t really know why,” Bolduc said. “(Defensive coach Mike) Rutherford put us in the right spot and we knew the pass was coming. I didn’t think it would turn out the way it did. I picked the left side because there were a lot of blockers. I saw ‘Espo’ block their quarterback and I cut back. We were pretty fired up, but we knew the game wasn’t close to over and we couldn’t call it quits there.”
“I was still on the field and they got the timeout,” Archambault said. “I thought they’d try a trick play, but Dylan made a phenomenal play. That’s one of the most amazing plays I’ve ever seen. He tries to return everything. I saw the receivers get cleaned out after he caught it and I was just trying to catch up with him. He was cutting all over the place. I caught up with him and got to celebrate with him. It was a great feeling.”
“I thought the half was over and we were down 3-0 and we’d have to take our shot to start the second half,” Hartman added. “(Dylan’s) a sensational football player. He’s not very big, but he’s a tough kid.”
Williams added the PAT and instead of trailing at the break, the Bulldogs, who held the ball for only 7 minutes and 16 seconds of the 24-minute first half, had a 7-3 advantage.
“Our offense was sputtering and we weren’t confident we could do a lot against their defense, so to take a lead to locker room after such a penalty-filled first half was a great momentum shift,” Archambault said.
Portland had confidence as the second half began, but it knew the game was far from over.
Since they deferred on the opening kickoff, the Bulldogs got the ball first in the second half and after Bolduc returned the kick 16 yards to the 26, began a 14-play march which would eat up over six minutes.
Esposito ran for six yards on first down and an offsides penalty on the Eagles moved the chains. After Archambault ran for 14 yards to move the ball into Windham territory, Chaison-Lapine ran for five yards and consecutive three-yard runs by Esposito set up a first down at the 38. Chaison-Lapine ran for nine yards on the next play and Portland appeared to have a good rhythm going, but while going out of bounds, Chaison-Lapine was shoved into the first down marker and snapped it in half. Play was stopped for 10 minutes to have the stick fixed and that took the wind out of the Bulldogs’ sails.
On the first play after the delay, a holding penalty backed the Bulldogs up. They then took a delay of game. Chaison-Lapine, riding a terrific block from Esposito, ran for 12 yards, then picked up two, but another delay of game penalty set up fourth-and-7 from the Eagles’ 35 and forced a punt.
Or so we thought.
Archambault, who was due to be the starting quarterback this fall until suffering a bone bruise in his throwing hand in a preseason game loss to Thornton Academy, faked the punt and hit Hunnewell for 13 critical yards and a first down at the Windham 22.
“It was something new we put in this week specifically for Windham,” said Archambault, of the fake. “We thought they had a hole in their punt coverage and we knew we could only do it once. The coaches pulled it out at the perfect time and we executed it. I palmed it, but it was a spiral and it was on target.”
“We practiced that all week,” said Hartman, who credited assistant Tim Marr for the play. “That was a new formation that we thought would trick them and it did.”
Portland couldn’t punch it in, as Chaison-Lapine was held to no gain, Bachelder threw incomplete and Bachelder was thrown for a two-yard loss, but with 5:38 left in the stanza, Williams’ 42-yard field goal attempt crossed the bar for a 10-3 lead.
“(John’s) a great kicker,” Hartman said. “I have to leave him alone and let him do his thing. Every kickoff was a touchback too. Field position is everything when teams are this close.”
Now down a touchdown, the Eagles started at their 20 after a touchback. Houser lost a yard on first down, then ran for four and two, but Windham had to punt.
The Bulldogs got the ball back at their 39, but after Chaison-Lapine rumbled for 11 yards and a first down, he gained a yard, then was held to no gain before Bachelder threw incomplete to force a punt.
Late in the third quarter, the Eagles started from their 28. After Leslie ran for two yards, he hit Eskilson for 11 and a first down at the 41. After a false start, a six-yard Houser run ended the quarter.
On the first play of the fourth period, Leslie found junior Griffin Hebert for seven yards and Leslie ran for four on the next snap for a first down at the Portland 47. After Jacobson gained two, Leslie hit Houser with a quick pass, but Houser was thrown for a two-yard loss. On third-and-10, Bulldogs junior Ethan Hoyt sacked Leslie, forcing another punt.
With 8:37 to play, Portland stated at its 9 and couldn’t generate a first down. After Esposito ran for three yards and Chaison-Lapine gained one, an apparent Chaison-Lapine first down run was negated by a hold and Esposito’s seven-yard run on third-and-13 set up fourth down.
With 6:28 left, Windham started in great shape, at the Bulldogs’ 39, but Portland’s defense continued to sparkle.
After Jacobson ran for four yards, Archambault threw him for a three-yard loss. Leslie ran for three more and out of an Eagles’ timeout, the Bulldogs jumped offsides, setting up a fourth-and-1 from the 30, but Leslie was thrown backwards two yards by Archambault and with 4:43 to go, Portland got the ball back, at its 32.
Again, Windham’s defense did its job, holding Archambault to four yards, Esposito to one and Chaison-Lapine to no gain.
The Eagles appeared primed to start their next drive in good shape, but on the return, a block-in-the-back penalty prevented good field position and put Windham at its 28 with 2:22 showing.
After a delay of game penalty on the Eagles, Leslie ran for two yards, but Marzilli knocked down a pass and a holding penalty set up a third-and-28 from the 10. Leslie was then intercepted by Archambault, who returned the ball to the Windham 15 with just 1:31 to go.
“We were just playing a prevent defense,” Archambault said. “We knew they’d take a shot. I knew their playmaker was (senior Eric) Webb and he was going straight down the field. I was sitting there in the middle and read their quarterback and I was just happy I could pick it off.”
The interception could have iced the win, but the Eagles would get a final chance.
After Chaison-Lapine ran for a yard on first down, Esposito ran for a yard, then gained three, but Bachelder only picked up a yard on fourth-and-5.
With 29.6 seconds remaining, Windham started at its 9, needing a miracle.
After a bad snap led to no gain and kept the clock moving, Leslie had to spike the ball. He then ran for 12 yards to the 21 and the clock stopped with 3.9 seconds to go, setting up one final play.
Leslie threw a screen pass to Houser, who gained a few yards before being surrounded. He then lateraled to senior Kyle Kilfoil, who tried to keep the game alive by lateraling again. This time, the ball hit the ground and at 9:20 p.m., the contest was over.
“I came up and saw what they were trying to do,” Archambault said. “Once they lateraled it the final time, I was just trying to find someone behind the play to stop them from getting the ball. By that point, we really knew we’d make a play and stop them. Every game we put so much effort in and expend so much energy, we can’t help but get tired, but we knew it was a big game.”
Portland had sprung the upset, 10-3.
“We game planned really well and watched a lot of film,” Bolduc said. “We do what we’re told. Rutherford’s a great defensive coach and knows what’s going on. They didn’t pass that much in film. They ran a lot. We did game plan the pass a little bit. No one thought we’d win this game, but we had nothing to lose. I kind of like being an underdog.”
“Windham’s a great team,” said Archambault. “We know they’re physical. We thought with our speed and our physicality, we’d match up. (Windham’s) predicted to go to states by a lot of people, but we thought we could match up with them and we proved we’re legit. In the coming weeks, it will be huge for us to know we knocked off a top team. We don’t really consider ourselves underdogs. We think we can play with anybody. When someone picks against us, it adds fuel to the fire.”
“They lost a couple studs, we lost a couple studs and we both had key people coming back and we knew were pretty even last year,” Hartman added. “We were just a sliver better tonight. They’re an exceptionally good football team. The kids reached down inside and played football the way it should be and got it done.”
Offensively, the Bulldogs only mustered 117 yards. They ran just 34 plays to 51 for the Eagles, held the ball for only 21 of 48 minutes, committed three turnovers and were flagged 10 times for 57 yards.
But they won.
Chaison-Lapine was the workhorse, gaining 87 yards on 18 attempts. He also had one reception for 10 yards. Esposito ran nine times for 28 yards and earned kudos for his play on defense.
“Esposito was unbelievable on defense,” Hartman said. “He was amazing.”
Bachelder finished 1-of-4 passing for 10 yards and an interception. Archambault completed the only pass the threw, on the fake punt, for 13 yards and ran twice for 18.
“‘Archie’s’ a great football player,” Hartman said. “It was a killer for him to lose the quarterback position, but his blocking was the difference in the game.”
Hunnewell had one reception for 13.
Afterwards, it was Portland’s defense that got the most praise,
“This is the best our defense has ever done,” said a jubilant Rutherford.
Windham, which had 169 yards of offense, was penalized 10 times for 98 yards and committed two turnovers.
Leslie ran for 66 yards on 13 carries and completed 7-of-16 passes for 85 yards. He threw two interceptions. Houser rushed 13 times for 53 yards and caught two passes for 3 yards. Jacobson had nine carries for 23 yards. Eskilson caught four passes for 75 yards and Hebert had one reception for seven yards.
The midway point of the 2015 regular season arrives next weekend.
Windham will look to recover, but it won’t be easy, as the Eagles host undefeated powerhouse Thornton Academy (3-0) in a rematch of last year’s state final (won by the Golden Trojans).
Portland travels to 0-3 Oxford Hills Saturday afternoon, then returns home to meet recent nemesis Cheverus. Last season, the Bulldogs held off the visiting Vikings, 14-7.
You can bet that Portland will be well aware of the possibility of a letdown and will do what it takes to avoid one.
“We have an extra day to prepare,” Archambault said. “We won’t take them lightly. We know they’ll try to come out and punch us in the mouth after our big win, but we’ll be ready.”
“It’s great, but now it’s over and we have to look forward to Oxford Hills,” Bolduc said. “We have to come to play and do the same thing every week.”
“We have to get things together on offense,” Hartman added. “We need big-time improvement. Because of Issiah being new and a new line, we haven’t discovered our offensive personality. When we do, look out. Cheverus is on the horizon, but we can’t look past Oxford Hills. We can’t have a trap game. The kids have to stay focused. Oxford Hills plays us tough. When we go up there, we have to play the field position game. They won’t quit. I think we’ll have our hands full. They have big, strong kids, but I’m sure our kids will rise to the occasion.”
Portland senior John Williams drills a critical third quarter field goal for a 10-3 lead during Friday’s home showdown versus Windham. The Bulldogs went on to earn a measure of revenge from last year’s playoff loss by upsetting the Eagles by that score.
Portland junior Ethan Hoyt closes in on Windham senior quarterback Desmond Leslie for a key second half sack.
Portland junior Dylan Bolduc is dragged down by Windham senior Eric Webb on a kickoff return.
Portland senior George Chaison-Lapine looks for running room.
The ominous specter of Portland senior Dan Marzilli tails Windham junior Kyle Houser.
Portland junior Issiah Bachelder wraps up Windham senior Mitchell Eskilson.
Portland’s sideline erupts with joy as junior Dylan Bolduc returns an interception 97 yards for a game-turning touchdown as the first half expires.
Mike Strout photos.
Portland senior Joe Esposito is congratulated by junior Ethan Hoyt after one of the Bulldogs’ countless huge defensive plays.
@ Portland 57 Windham 14
Eastern A semifinals
@ Portland 55 Windham 7
Western A quarterfinals
Portland 35 @ Windham 21
@ Windham 16 Portland 7
Windham 20 @ Portland 14
@ Windham 38 Portland 6
Windham 48 @ Portland 7
@ Windham 14 Portland 2
Portland 25 @ Windham 14
@ Portland 36 Windham 7
W- 0 3 0 0- 3
P- 0 7 3 0- 10
W- Innis 32 FG
P- Bolduc 97 interception return (Williams kick)
P- Williams 42 FG