Portland springs a shocker at Windham

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WINDHAM—Beware the Bulldogs’ bite.

And their heart.

Saturday afternoon, the Portland High football team dug deep into its reservoir of pride and character and wound up shocking the local football world.

Playing at a Windham squad which had won all five games this fall and the team suddenly viewed as the one to beat in Eastern Class A, the Bulldogs reminded everyone why they were seen as a preseason favorite and why come November, nobody should rule them out.

A brilliant 48-minute defensive effort, some clutch kicking from junior John Williams and one superb second half drive proved to be just enough to turn a season around.

Portland was staggered early, when, after a long opening kickoff return, the Eagles scored a quick touchdown, as sophomore quarterback Desmond Leslie hit junior Eric Webb from 27 yards out on fourth down.

But unlike two weeks ago, when Windham ran wild at Cheverus and stunned the Stags by four touchdowns, the Eagles had hit their highwater mark with the game not even two minutes old.

The Bulldogs would cut their deficit in half when Williams drilled a 40-yard field goal with 4:08 to play in the half and they turned the game (and arguably their season) around just before the break with one of the greatest goal line stands in recent memory, which kept the score 6-3.

That loomed huge when Portland drove in the third period to the tying score, a 22-yard Williams field goal.

Then, after a timely interception from senior Domenic Fagone, gritty junior running back George Chaison-Lapine broke free for 45 yards, setting up a 3-yard TD scamper from senior quarterback Jordan Talbot. The extra point was blocked, but with 9:56 remaining, the Bulldogs had a 12-6 lead.

Windham had time to answer, but Portland’s defense wasn’t about to buckle.

After holding the Eagles on downs on one series, a game-clinching pick from sophomore Dylan Bolduc sealed it and the Bulldogs went on to an inspirational 12-6 triumph.

Portland has now won two in a row, improved to 4-2 on the season and dropped the Eagles to 5-1 in the process, throwing everything we thought we knew about Class A football (as well as the standings) into disarray.

“This is awesome,” Fagone said. “This means everything. It’s a huge win. I’m so excited right now, I can’t even talk. Portland kids are just a bunch of tough kids who stick together. It was just willpower. We just wanted it more. Heart was everything.”

Meeting the hype

After falling three points shy of the state final last year, Portland, despite graduating standout Justin Zukowski and several other key contributors, was still viewed as a top threat entering the 2014 campaign, but nothing has come easily for the Bulldogs.

Portland 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. After a 22-0 victory at Edward Little, the Bulldogs let a 21-point lead slip away in a shocking and disheartening 28-27 overtime home loss to Bangor. Portland got back in the win column last week, barely, holding off visiting Oxford Hills, 14-7.

Windham won the 2009 Class A title and has been a regular playoff contender. This fall, the Eagles were expected to take the next step and for five weeks, didn’t disappoint, handling host Deering (53-12), visiting Edward Little (45-7) and visiting Lewiston (61-22), then shocking host Cheverus (35-7), before holding on for a 6-0 victory at Bangor last week.

Prior to Saturday’s contest, the teams had met 10 times (dating to 2005), with each squad winning five. The Bulldogs were able to even the series last year by prevailing, 57-14, in the regular season and 55-7 in the Eastern A semifinals.

This time, on Windham’s Homecoming Saturday, Portland did it again in, albeit in much closer and more dramatic fashion.

The kickoff temperature was only 49 degrees, but the sun would come out and warm those on hand.

The Bulldogs won the opening coin toss, but chose to defer possession to the second half and the Eagles quickly got the jump.

The opening kickoff came to sophomore Kyle Houser at the 2 and Houser returned it 65 yards, all the way to the Portland 33.

The Bulldogs made an immediate defensive statement by throwing Leslie for a five-yard loss, but standout junior running back Dylan Koza ran for 12. After Koza was thrown for a one-yard loss, setting up fourth-and-4 from the 27, Leslie dropped back and hit Webb, who blew right past the secondary, in stride for the touchdown. The extra point was botched by a high snap, but all signs appeared to suggest that Windham was en route to an easy win.

Instead, the Eagles wouldn’t score for the game’s final 46 minutes, 13 seconds.

Portland’s first offensive possession was promising, but didn’t result in points.

After being pushed back by a holding penalty, Talbot hit Chaison-Lapine for 21 yards and a first down at midfield. A 13-yard Chaison-Lapine run moved the chains and a six-yard run by sophomore Nick Archambault set up first down at the Windham 24, but Chaison-Lapine was thrown for a four-yard loss and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty cost the Bulldogs 15 yards and short-circuited the drive.

Windham started its next series from its 20 after a touchback on a punt, but three plays only gained two yards. The Eagles were primed to punt when Portland jumped offsides. On fourth-and-3, Windham went for it and Webb made a spectacular catch of a pass thrown behind him for 13 yards and a first down. Three plays gained seven yards, setting up another fourth down and this time, a pass fell incomplete and the Bulldogs held on downs.

Portland took over at the Eagles’ 47 and on third-and-10, Talbot rolled left and delivered a perfect pass on the run to junior Austin Phillips, who picked up a first down at the 28. A false start penalty backed the Bulldogs up and Chaison-Lapine was thrown for a yard loss. After Talbot gained a yard on a scramble, then ran for eight, he was corralled for a five-yard loss on fourth-and-8 and the hosts got the ball back at their 31.

As the first period gave way to the second, Windham was pushed back by a holding penalty and soon had to punt.

A 15 yard return from junior Joe Esposito set Portland up at its 42, but the Bulldogs went three-and-out. A Talbot punt then pinned the Eagles at their 9.

Windham started to move again, as on fourth-and-2 from the 17, junior Griffin Jacobson threw out of punt formation and his pass to junior Mitchell Eskilson on the fake picked up 13 yards. A short run from Jacobson picked up another first down, but in a sign of things to come, Portland’s defense bent but didn’t break.

On second-and-inches from midfield, Jacobson was held to no gain. On third down, Leslie’s pass went through Webb’s hands and on fourth-and-inches, Koza was stuffed for no gain.

The Bulldogs started at midfield and this time drove for their first points.

A 10-yard Esposito run and a 15-yard facemask penalty did most of the damage. The next three plays only gained two yards, so Portland coach Jim Hartman sent Williams on to try a 40-yard field goal. As usual, Williams delivered a strong, long kick and it split the uprights to cut Windham’s lead to 6-3 with 4:08 remaining before halftime.

It looked like that field goal was going to be a meaningless footnote when the Eagles drove down the field before the break, looking to open the game up, but the march came to an end in stunning fashion.

Windham started at its 27 and behind a 17-yard Leslie-to-Eskilson pass on a slant, a 15-yard run by Houser (and a 15-yard penalty tacked on when a Bulldog was flagged for playing without his helmet) and an 18-yard pass from Leslie to senior Zach Davis, moved the ball to the half-yard line.

Portland’s season was at a crossroads and the Bulldogs answered their critics.

Emphatically.

On first down, Houser was stuffed for no gain.

On second down, Houser got the ball again, but this time, he was thrown for a two-yard loss by senior Jeremiah Israel-Copeland.

The Eagles tried to go to the air on third down, but Leslie’s pass was incomplete.

With 36 seconds remaining before halftime, Windham could have opted to match Williams’ field goal and restore its six-point lead, but they went for it all on fourth down.

Leslie dropped back to throw, rolled right and threw into traffic in the back of the end zone. Bolduc, Archambault and Esposito all leaped and ensured the pass fell incomplete.

The Bulldogs, who were happy to take a knee and go to halftime down only three, had dodged a major bullet.

“That gave us confidence going into halftime,” Fagone said.

“Jeremiah made that big play to knock them off the 1, then we had everybody do what they’re supposed to do in the end zone,” Hartman said. “You always hear (New England Patriots coach Bill) Belichick say, ‘Do your job.’ We did our job today.”

In the first half, Windham outgained Portland, 178 yards to 86, but the Bulldogs had risen off the deck after the early haymaker and suddenly had momentum.

Portland then finished the job in the second half.

After Talbot returned the third quarter kickoff to the 38, the Bulldogs marched 57 yards on 12 plays, chewing up half of the period, to tie the score.

A 10-yard Esposito run moved the chains. Then, on fourth-and-1 from the Eagles’ 39, Talbot gained four. A facemask penalty on Windham moved the ball to the 12, but three runs only gained seven yards and Portland had to turn to Williams again, who drilled a 22-yard field goal to make it 6-6 with 6:02 left in the quarter.

The Eagles hoped to answer, but went three-and-out instead.

The Bulldogs then began at their 34, but also went three-and-out and had to punt.

Windham, starting at its 32, got a 20-yard completion from Leslie to Davis on first down, but two plays later, in Portland territory, Leslie was intercepted by Fagone, who returned the ball to the Bulldogs’ 43.

“I just read it,” Fagone said. “They ran a slant, but (Leslie) overthrew it. I stayed back and made the play.”

That play set the tone for the drive of the game, which would put Portland ahead to stay.

On the final play of the third period, Chaison-Lapine ran for a yard. He got the ball again to start the fourth and this time broke free, taking a handoff on a reverse and roaring down the left sideline for 45 yards all the way to Windham’s 11-yard line.

A false start penalty backed the Bulldogs up five yards, but Esposito ran for nine and Chaison-Lapine picked up four, setting up third-and-2 from the 3.

Talbot, whose elusiveness gave the Eagles fits all day, didn’t get cute on the next play, he just took the shotgun snap and bulled straight ahead, following his blockers into the end zone to give Portland its first lead.

“That was a designed play,” Talbot said. “My line did everything that needed to be done. I trust them 100 percent on every play. I made one quick cut and I got in there.”

“This was Jordan’s best game,” Hartman said. “He made some tough throws in the first half when they could have blown us out. He played extremely well and that’s what we need to take the next step.”

Williams’ extra point was blocked, so with 9:56 to play, Portland clung to a 12-6 lead.

A lot of time remained for the explosive Eagles to respond, but the Bulldogs weren’t about to budge.

Starting at its 32, Windham got a 15-yard run from Houser, then moved into Portland territory on a 22-yard Leslie-to-Eskilson slant pass. When Houser ran for eight yards, the ball was at the Bulldogs’ 12, but after stopping the Eagles from the half-yard line, Portland wasn’t fazed.

Junior Dan Marzilli, who had a stellar defensive game, threw Houser for a two-yard loss. On the next snap, senior Ryan Ruhlin dropped Houser for a three-yard loss. Leslie then threw incomplete on both third and fourth downs and with 5:23 to play, Portland took over on downs at its 17.

First down runs from Archambault and Esposito milked some time and gave the Bulldogs hope they could run out the clock, but two delay of game penalties, as well as a holding transgression meant they had to punt and rely on the defense one more time.

With 2:15 to play, out of timeouts, Windham got the ball at its 38.

Leslie kept the ball on first down and ran for 11 yards. The Eagles then moved before the snap, costing themselves five yards, but Leslie got them back (and three more) with a scramble. Windham then was flagged for another false start and a quick pass to Houser (Ruhlin wrapped him up) only gained a yard and set up third-and-11 from the Windham 48.

Leslie dropped back and under pressure, tried to go over the middle, but his pass sailed and Bolduc hauled it in and after his 15-yard return, the celebration was underway.

“For some reason, it’s always Dylan,” Fagone said. “He did it against Oxford Hills last week too.”

Talbot took a knee on three straight snaps and that ran out the clock.

At 3:18 p.m., after a tremendous 140-minute display of heart, Portland had itself a 12-6 triumph.

“We had a really good game plan,” Fagone said. “We messed up at the beginning, but after that, we didn’t make any mistakes. It was nervewracking at the end, but we overcame it and did what we had to do. People said we were overrated, but we proved how good we are today.”

“We got what we expected, but we pulled together,” Talbot said. “We’re a team, a brotherhood. I’m glad we pulled through. We kept our heads up and kept fighting until the end.”

“Portland kids are very tough kids,” Hartman added. “They do some bozo things at times and keep me young, but they responded very well. They just got mad after losing to Bangor. They don’t drop their shoulders, they just get (mad). This is the biggest character win in my three years here.

“Somehow, I just felt we’d win. As a coach, you’re always optimistic. We’ve played well all season, but we kept shooting ourselves in the foot. Finally, today, there was no shooting ourselves in the foot. We’re a young team still. We’re teaching young kids how to play the game. They really came around today.

“Everyone stepped up and did something really well. Mike Rutherford (who called the win the biggest he’s been associated with in his 25 years of coaching) put together a great plan on defense and we stuck to it. Our back guys are really strong. The up-front guys did their job, stopping the runner.”

Statistically, the Bulldogs didn’t blow anybody away, but they made the plays that mattered.

Talbot finished 3-of-8 passing for 50 yards. More importantly, he ran for 36 yards and a touchdown on 10 attempts. Chaison-Lapine gained 71 yards on 12 rushes and had two catches for 31 yards. Esposito finished with 58 yards on 12 tries. Archambault ran three times for 11 yards. Fagone carried twice for 8 yards. Senior Alex Oja got one carry and picked up 3. Phillips caught a pass for 19 yards.

Portland gained 224 yards and was penalized nine times for 66 yards, but never turned the ball over.

Windham tallied 267 yards (just 89 in the second half), turned the ball over twice and was assessed 46 yards on six penalties.

Koza, who didn’t play a snap in the second half due to injury, only rushed for 31 yards on eight attempts. Houser gained 53 yards on 15 attempts. Leslie rushed for 27 yards on seven tries and through the air went 7-of-20 for 118 yards with two interceptions and one touchdown. Eskilson was the lead receiver, with three catches for 52 yards. Davis had two receptions for 38 yards and Webb caught two balls for 40 yards and the Eagles’ lone touchdown.

Blood in the water

Windham (now tied with Cheverus for first in the Eastern Class A Crabtree Points standings) won’t have it easy next week either, when it goes to dangerous Oxford Hills. The Eagles close at home against defending Class A champion Bonny Eagle.

Portland, meanwhile, will have to guard against a letdown when it welcomes 0-6 Lewiston Friday. The Bulldogs (fourth in Eastern A) close at rival South Portland in the “Battle of the Bridge” Oct. 25.

Don’t expect Portland to falter. This group appears to have found its identity at last.

“This gives us a ton of confidence, but we won’t get cocky,” said Fagone. “We want that Gold Ball.”

“Lewiston has five of the best athletes I’ve seen,” Hartman said. “They can change a game in a hurry, but I don’t think this team will have a letdown. It’s not in their character. I think they smell blood and I hope they act like a shark.”

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

Portland junior placekicker John Williams gets the game underway with the opening kickoff. Williams had two huge field goals in the victory.

Portland junior Joe Esposito looks for some running room.

Windham junior Eric Webb leaps to make a reception as Portland junior Joe Esposito closes in.

In a game-turning (and possibly season-turning) goal line stand at the end of the first half, Portland sophomores Dylan Bolduc (35) and Nick Archambault (12) and junior Joe Esposito (31) make sure a fourth-and-goal pass from the 3 is knocked down, stymieing Windham’s chance to take a healthy lead to the break.

Portland junior George Chaison-Lapine breaks free for a critical 45-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter, setting up the Bulldogs’ lone touchdown.

Try as they might, Windham had no luck catching Portland senior quarterback Jordan Talbot Saturday. Talbot’s second half TD run proved to be the difference.

Portland sophomore Dylan Bolduc defends a deep pass to Windham junior Mitchell Eskilson.

Previous Portland-Windham results

2013
@ Portland 57 Windham 14
Western A semifinals
@ Portland 55 Windham 7

2012
Western A quarterfinals
Portland 35 @ Windham 21

2011
@ Windham 16 Portland 7

2010
Windham 20 @ Portland 14

2009
@ Windham 38 Portland 6

2008
Windham 48 @ Portland 7

2007
@ Windham 14 Portland 2

2006
Portland 25 @ Windham 14

2005
@ Portland 36 Windham 7

Sidebar Elements


The Portland sideline whoops it up in the late stages of Saturday’s 12-6 upset win at Windham.

Derek Carpine photos.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

Portland 12 Windham 6

P- 0 3 3 6- 12
W- 6 0 0 0- 6

First quarter
W- Webb 27 pass from Leslie (kick failed)

Second quarter
P- Williams 40 FG

Third quarter
P- Williams 22 FG

Fourth quarter
P- Talbot 3 run (kick blocked)

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