PORTLAND—A mere 72 minutes into the new season, Portland’s football team found itself at a crossroads Friday evening at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
The Bulldogs, who came oh-so-close to playing for a state title a year and who entertain championship dreams this autumn, were staring an 0-2 start in the face and were running out of time to do something about it.
One week after getting pounded at Cheverus in the opener, Portland was being stunned by visiting Deering at halftime, 14-7, and it was character-check time in the locker room in the bowels of the Portland Exposition Building.
Suffice it to say, the Bulldogs rose to the occasion.
After a surprise Rams’ on-sides kick to start the second half failed, Portland quickly tied the score on a long run from junior George Chaison-Lapine.
Then, junior Joe Esposito took over.
Esposito, who earlier returned an interception for the Bulldogs’ first score, did it again, stepping in front of pass thrown by Deering junior quarterback Max Chabot and returning it 53 yards down the left sideline to put Portland ahead to stay.
The Bulldogs didn’t let up from there, adding another score before the end of the third period (on a short scamper from senior Domenic Fagone), then punched in two more in the fourth (on TD runs from senior Alex Oja and sophomore Jake Knop) and that slammed the door on a nowhere-near-as-easy-as-the-final-score-indicated 42-14 triumph.
Portland evened its record at 1-1, dropped the plucky Rams to 0-2, took a 63-29-10 all-time lead in the ancient series and served notice that it intends to be in this thing for the long haul.
“It wasn’t very pretty at all,” said Bulldogs coach Jim Hartman. “We had to come together as a team and we did it. We came out and ran the ball hard. We didn’t run or block in the first half. The kids tried to do too much. Everyone wanted the ball. We had to mature.”
Portland hoped to finally get over the Cheverus hurdle last weekend, but lost in decisive fashion, 41-3, and had to quickly lick its wounds to get ready for a Deering team that the Bulldogs knew would be fired up to play them.
The Rams, after a challenging-to-say-the-least 2013 campaign (which included a midseason coaching change), opened the new season with a 53-12 home loss to talented Windham.
Last fall’s 45-19 road victory was Portland’s first in the regular season over Deering since 2005. In fact, since the start of the 2003 season, the Rams had won nine of 11 meetings (see sidebar, below), but Friday, the Bulldogs again held serve and made it two in a row, although it didn’t come without a lot of anxious moments.
Deering parlayed a nice opening kickoff return to the game’s first score, as Chabot took the ball over from the 1 with 9:48 to play in the first period. Senior Jacob Coon added the extra point and just like that, the Rams had a quick 7-0 advantage.
Later in the quarter, Deering was driving for another score, when Esposito came up huge, intercepting Chabot’s pass and not stopping until he crossed the goal line after an 80-yard return. Junior John Williams’ extra point tied the game, 7-7, with 2:55 to go in the opening stanza.
“(Defensive coordinator Mike) Rutherford called the D,” said Esposito. “He had a good gameplan. I was trying to be sneaky. I stepped in front and read the play.”
The Rams weren’t fazed, however, and with seven minutes remaining in the first half, Chabot again took it over from the 1 and Coon again added the PAT to make it 14-7 Deering.
Late in the half, with Portland’s offense having sputtered for almost six quarters (including turning the ball over three times already on the night), Hartman pulled starting quarterback, senior Jordan Talbot, in favor of sophomore Nick Archambault.
Hartman wouldn’t comment after the game about why he made the change or whether or not it’s permanent, but Archambault played well in the crucible of his first Portland-Deering game and eventually, the offense would get it in gear.
It didn’t happen before halftime, however.
The Rams drove to the Bulldogs’ 30 late in the half, but Portland’s defense again came up big, as back-to-back sacks from senior Josh Sullivan and senior Jeremiah Israel-Copeland send the visitors backwards.
Archambault’s first series produced 30 yards of offense, but time ran out before the Bulldogs could cross midfield and they went to the half down by seven.
The game turned on the second half kickoff.
Deering’s first-year coach Matt Riddell was concerned with his kickoff coverage and decided to roll the dice and a la New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton in Super Bowl XLIV, tried an on-sides kick.
Had it worked, the Rams might have continued to shock the world, but instead, Portland junior Dan Marzilli (who played for Deering the past two seasons) fell on the loose pigskin at the Bulldogs’ 48 and the hosts were in business.
“I was trying to be aware of the on-side kick and I tried to make my teammates aware,” Esposito said.
After Esposito rumbled for 10 yards and a first down, Chaison-Lapine took a handoff at the 40 and burst through the line, outrunning the pursuit to the end zone for Portland’s first offensive touchdown of the season. It came with 10:50 to play in the third quarter and Williams’ PAT tied the score, 14-14.
Things got worse for the visitors on the ensuing kickoff when the Rams couldn’t handle it and it was recovered by the Bulldogs at the Deering 26.
Portland wasn’t able to go ahead, however, as after three plays lost two yards, Williams was well short on a 45-yard field goal attempt.
It was only a matter of time until the Bulldogs took the lead and after Rams sophomore Jean Claude Nzeza ran for 20 yards into Portland territory, Esposito took center stage once more.
On 2nd-and-13 from midfield, Chabot dropped back and attempted a short pass to the right sideline, but Esposito got to it first, grabbing the ball at the Bulldogs’ 47, eluding a tackler, then going all the way for a 53-yard score to put Portland ahead for good.
“The second (return) was the same play,” Esposito said. “Chabot couldn’t really see me. I was hoping for that.”
Williams’ PAT made it 21-14 Bulldogs with 6:41 to go in the third.
After Deering went three-and-out, Portland drove 43 yards on six plays to extend its lead.
After a short put set the Bulldogs up, a pair of eight-yard scampers by Archambault sparked the drive.
“Nick did a great job, stood right in there,” Hartman said. “He’s a tough kid. He won’t back down to any challenge. I’m really proud of him. He’s a really underrated sophomore. He’s a hell of football player.”
A nine-yard Esposito run and a gain of 14 by Oja set the stage for Fagone, who missed the Cheverus game, but who played very well Friday, to push the pile and score from the 4. Williams’ extra point made it 28-14 Portland with 2:08 to go in the third quarter.
Deering went three-and-out again and as a most productive third period gave way to the fourth, the Bulldogs embarked on another scoring march.
A 14-yard run by Esposito got things started.
The start of the fourth quarter was delayed so Claude Nzeza could be taken from the field by ambulance (it was believed to be for precautionary reason).
Then, on the first play of the final stanza, Esposito ran for eight more. Fagone then ran for eight. On second-and-7 from the 10, Oja did it again, running left and beating the pursuit to the pylon for a touchdown. This time, Williams missed the PAT, but Portland led, 34-14, with 9:48 to play.
Another Sullivan sack short-circuited the next Rams’ drive and the Bulldogs got the ball back at the Deering 45, but Archambault was intercepted by Coon.
The Rams couldn’t do anything with the gift, however, as a third Sullivan sack forced another punt.
With 5:25 to go, Portland took over at its 37 and it took just three plays to drive for the final score.
One play after Chaison-Lapine broke free for 37 yards, Knop finished the drive with a 22-yard run. The Bulldogs went for a two-point conversion and junior Marcus Mello ran it in to make it 42-14.
After one more defensive stop, Portland got the ball back, Archambault took a knee three times and the Bulldogs had their first win.
“We went into halftime and came up with the phrase, ‘Man Up,'” Esposito said. “I was trying to emphasize having fun on the field, so I was jacked up for every play. Beating Deering never gets old. “
“Our offense started to click at the end,” Hartman said. “Until then, we had to do it on defense and special teams. Mike Rutherford did a great job laying out the defense. The kids performed it to perfection.”
Portland’s offensive play, most notably the running of Chaison-Lapine, Esposito, Fagone and Oja, in the second half (when the Bulldogs produced 221 yards of offense to just 42 for the Rams) is certainly cause for optimism.
“Coach talked about pounding the rock and we did,” said Esposito. “(Deering) got a little tired and we have a lot of backs who can back each other up.”
“We have four good backs, they’re just not used to carrying the ball in varsity games,” Hartman said. “They need to learn to find the holes.”
Deering had its moments, but ultimately couldn’t put together 48 strong minutes.
“I think the first half you saw the team we are,” Riddell said. “The second half, you saw the team we used to be. Injuries mounted for us. We have six starters out and we had three more out today. The young guys just weren’t ready. That’s on us as coaches. We’re still a young team that’s learning how to play four quarters. We’ve talked about doing the little things to be a good football team.”
With the regular season a quarter of the way complete, both squads have a lot of work left to do.
Deering will again seek its first victory when it hosts 2-0 Bangor Friday evening. Last year, Deering lost the Battle of the Rams, 40-13, in Bangor.
Deering is making strides, but knows it will be a process.
“We’re getting there,” Riddell said. “We need to get healthy. I think the East is pretty balanced this year, as opposed to last year. Bangor is huge. They won’t be any easier. I think we’re making steps understanding how to play. It’s going to take time. A lot of these guys are on their third coach in three years. We’ll keep going.”
Portland hopes to improve to 2-1 Friday when it visits 0-2 Edward Little. Last year, the Bulldogs handled the visiting Red Eddies, 45-7.
Portland has some momentum, but won’t rest on its laurels.
“Last year, we started 0-1 too,” said Esposito. “This is the first block of building us back up again. We have to continue to stay focused in practice.”
“We’ll keep building and learning,” Hartman said. “We still have stuff to work on.”
Portland junior Joe Esposito finds some running room. Esposito had two critical interception returns for touchdowns.
A pass slips through the hands of Deering senior Jacob Coon.
Portland sophomore Dylan Bolduc delivers a hard hit on Deering junior Ben Williams.
Deering junior Dom Bernard eludes a Portland defender.
Portland sophomore Nick Archambault rolls out to pass as Deering junior Patrick Viola closes in. Archambault came on in relief in the second quarter and helped spark the Bulldogs to victory.
Portland senior Jordan Talbot is brought down by Deering junior Dom Bernard.
@ Deering 34 Portland 7
Deering 33 @ Portland 16
@ Deering 21 Portland 14
@ Portland 13 Deering 9
@ Deering 42 Portland 14
Portland senior Cedric Smith leaps to get in the throwing lane of Deering junior quarterback Max Chabot. It took awhile, but the Bulldogs got it together and beat the Rams, 42-14, Friday night.
Mike Strout phtotos.
More photos below.
D- 7 7 0 0- 14
P- 7 0 21 14- 42
9:48 D Chabot 1 run (Coon kick)
2:55 P Esposito 80 interception return (Williams kick)
7:00 D Coon 1 run (Coon kick)
10:50 P Chaison-Lapine 40 run (Williams kick)
6:41 P Esposito 53 interception return (Williams kick)
2:08 P Fagone 4 run (Williams kick)
9:48 P Oja 10 run (kick failed)
4:08 P Knop 22 run (Mello run)