PORTLAND—After waiting three long years to beat rival South Portland, dealing with a 25-minute power outage was a piece of cake for the Portland football team Friday night at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
The red-hot Bulldogs, winners of six straight coming in, had unfinished business against the Red Riots, as no current player had enjoyed a victory in the “Battle of the Bridge.”
When Portland was forced to punt on its first possession, it appeared South Portland might just carry play again, but as junior Jordan Talbot lined up to punt, the lights at Fitzpatrick Stadium went out and the game entered the realm of the surreal.
After a long delay, play resumed and the Red Riots drove deep into Bulldogs’ territory, seeking the first score, but Portland forced a fumble which it recovered at its 1 and late in the first period, the hosts drove 99 yards to take the lead for good, as senior standout Justin Zukowski bulled in from 10 yards out to break the ice.
The Bulldogs added a second TD, on a 2-yard Talbot run, in the second period, but South Portland was on the brink of getting back in the game when it again drove into Portland territory.
Then, Red Riots senior quarterback Duncan Preston was intercepted by Bulldogs senior Ronald Hargrove and Hargrove returned the interception deep into South Portland’s end of the field, setting up a 27-yard field goal from sophomore John Williams, which put Portland on top, 17-0, at halftime.
Preston led a TD drive to start the second half, waking up echoes from a scintillating comeback two weeks ago at Scarborough, but the Bulldogs would have none of it, embarking on their second long drive of night to push the lead back to 17, as Zukowski scored on a 22-yard scamper.
Talbot then showed his throwing acumen in the final stanza, sandwiching TD passes of 27-yards to senior Jayvon Pitts-Young and 15-yards to junior Ryan Ruhlin (who made the catch of the season so far) around a Preston touchdown strike and Portland went on to a surprisingly easy 38-14 triumph.
The Bulldogs got 261 yards and two TDs on 33 carries from Zukowski, improved to 7-1 with a best-in-eight-years seven game win streak, locked up the No. 2 seed and first round bye for the upcoming playoffs and dropped the Red Riots to 5-3 in the process.
“I’m really proud,” said Portland coach Jim Hartman. “That (first) long drive was a statement. The kids were a little confused and had no heart at the beginning, but the lights going out was a gift from God. We went inside and had a long talk. We’re really focused on the Gold Ball, not this game so much. We ‘re just trying to get better.”
Even though they’re now in different regions, the annual Portland-South Portland game survives and Friday’s showdown was the 97th in the schools’ long history, dating to 1907 (please see sidebar, below).
This year marked the first time since 2001 that both teams entered with at least five wins.
South Portland, which missed the playoffs last fall with a 2-6 record, made the local football world sit up and take notice on Opening Night, when it upset visiting defending Class A champion Thornton Academy, 26-13. After letting a 14-0 lead slip away in a 46-21 loss at Bonny Eagle, the Red Riots handled visiting Massabesic (40-7) and Noble (41-14) before rallying from a 10-point deficit to win at Sanford, 21-10. Next came a trip to Scarborough and one of the most exciting games in recent Maine high school football vintage, but South Portland fell short, 58-57, in two overtimes. Last week, South Portland outscored visiting Biddeford, 55-24.
As for Portland, a semifinalist in 2012, it lost at home to Cheverus in its opener, 35-25, then began its run with a 45-19 win at Deering. The good times continued with victories over visiting Edward Little (45-7), host Bangor (33-20), host Oxford Hills (68-0), visiting Windham (57-14) and host Lewiston (42-6).
The Red Riots hoped to beat the Bulldogs for the fourth time in a row, but Portland’s seniors managed to down South Portland for the first time, cutting the Red Riots’ lead in the all-time series to 53-41 (with three ties).
The contest got underway five minutes early amid the chilliest conditions of the fall (43 degrees and dropping with a brisk wind at kickoff), but brevity would not be the order of the night.
After Talbot hit Hargrove for 7-yards on the sidelines to convert a third-and-5, Portland’s initial drive stalled as Talbot threw incomplete on third-and-1.
Talbot then dropped back to punt, but just before the ball was snapped, without warning, the entire facility (with the exception of the scoreboard) went pitch black.
While those on hand found varying ways to pass the time (South Portland’s student section won the award for creativity by changing the longstanding sing-song “We can’t hear you” chant to, “We can’t see you.”), both teams retreated to the locker rooms in the bowels of the Portland Exposition Building to refocus.
“We went in and got warm, that was it,” said Red Riots coach Steve Stinson. “I didn’t know if we’d keep playing. Those lights went out hard.”
“We went back to the locker room,” Zukowski said. “It was complete silence. We were focused, talked about some stuff. We came out and we were ready to go.”
Once play finally resumed, after having 25 minutes to mull it over, Hartman eschewed the punt and Talbot gained two yards on the fourth down fake, but an illegal block penalty, followed by a false start and an unsportsmanlike penalty, pushed Portland all the way back to its 11 and the hosts would have to punt.
In all, the Bulldogs had possession for 33 real-time minutes (including the outage), but had nothing to show for it.
“Between the lights and penalties early, it seemed like it took 45 minutes to get three minutes off the clock,” Stinson said.
After just a 29 yard punt from Talbot placed the ball on the Portland 42, South Portland’s first play resulted in a 10-yard pass from Preston to senior Jordan Susi. Preston took off for 18 yards on the next snap and the Red Riots had first down at the Bulldogs’ 14. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty would back the visitors up, however, and even though Preston found DiBiase for 16 yards on a screen pass, Preston’s scramble to the 8 on third down, set up fourth-and-short.
It looked like South Portland would pick up the conversion and then some, as Preston completed a pass to Owen, but after picking up the first down along the right sideline, Owen stretched for additional yardage and was stripped of the ball by Bulldogs junior Domenic Fagone, who not only forced a fumble, but also fell on the loose pigskin at the 1.
Portland had dodged a bullet, but found itself 99 yards from paydirt.
If the fumble hadn’t done enough to turn the tide, the Bulldogs’ ensuing 14-play drive, which ate up almost all of the rest of the first period, would do so.
An offsides penalty on South Portland gave Portland an initial first down and took the Bulldogs out of the shadow of their goal line.
A 20-yard scamper by Zukowski moved the chains and a 15-yard run by Hargrove put the ball near midfield. Another offsides penalty helped the cause further and on the next snap, Zukowski ran for 11-yards to the Red Riots’ 38. A 13-yard Zukowski run resulted in another first down and after Talbot gained two yards on fourth-and-1, Zukowski capped the march by bursting through a hole on the left side en route to a 10-yard score. Williams’ extra point made it 7-0 Bulldogs with 19.6 seconds left in the first stanza.
In the first 12 minutes, Portland ran 24 plays to just seven for South Portland.
The Red Riots then began to drive again, moving from their 13 to the 35 after an 11-yard Preston to junior Matt Stearns pass and a 9-yard run by DiBiase, but the Bulldogs’ defense stiffened and forced a punt.
This time, Portland could do nothing with the ball and kicked it back to South Portland, which marched from its 38 to the Bulldogs’ 25 before a bad center snap on third-and-3 went well over Preston’s head, took a Portland bounce and landed in the hands of Bulldogs junior Jeremiah Israel-Copeland at the 36.
Again, the Bulldogs turned a miscue into points, marching 64 yards in just over three minutes.
Talbot got the drive going through the air, hitting Pitts-Young for 5-yards and Zukowski for 10. Pitts-Young then found a hole and rumbled 25 yards to the Red Riots’ 24. After Zukowski ran off 13 more, Stinson called timeout, but on fourth-and-1 from the 2, Talbot kept the ball and got into the end zone and Williams’ extra point with 2:56 left before halftime made the score 14-0.
South Portland began on its 22 with 2:49 still to play before the break and sure enough, the Preston-led, quick-strike offense marched across midfield, as DiBiase ran for 33 yards. Three plays only managed three more yards, however, and the visitors had to punt.
The Red Riots’ defense forced a punt and with just under a minute to go, Preston got the ball back at the Portland 43, but on first down, his pass was awry, was snared by Hargrove at the 30 and Hargrove ran down the sideline all the way to the South Portland 25.
“I stayed home, it ended up in my hands and I just took off,” said Hargrove, who transferred to Portland this fall from Massachusetts.” My dad always tells me the biggest players make the biggest plays in the biggest games. I felt like I had to make a big play.”
This time, the Bulldogs wouldn’t punch the ball into the end zone, but with 11.1 seconds remaining before the half, Williams was true on a 27-yard field goal attempt and the lead was up to 17-0.
First half stats were relatively even, but the Red Riots’ three turnovers proved fatal.
After erasing a three touchdown deficit at Scarborough two weeks ago, South Portland wasn’t about to panic and sure enough, the Red Riots took the second half kickoff and got on the board.
Starting at its 17, South Portland took over four minutes and ran 14 plays to march the 83 yards to the end zone.
Nice runs by Preston and DiBiase did the damage early and passes of 20-yards from Preston to Owen and 10 more to Owen again, set up first-and-goal from the 4. DiBiase ran for three yards, then got the ball again and this time, thanks to a second effort, bulled his way into the end zone. Sophomore Nick Mezzanotte’s extra point pulled the Red Riots within 17-7 with 7:37 remaining in the third period.
A defensive stop might have turned the tide, but South Portland couldn’t hold Portland at bay and the hosts answered with an 80-yard drive of their own.
Runs of 14- and 37-yards by Zukowski did the most damage. On second-and-8 from the Red Riots’ 19, disaster almost struck when Talbot was sacked by Stearns and fumbled, but Pitts-Young recovered to keep the drive alive. On the next snap, Zukowski got the handoff, found room to his left and didn’t stop until he crossed the goal line 22 yards away for another touchdown.
“(Zukowski’s) tough,” Stinson said. “You can tell he’s smart. He makes cuts in his head before he gets the ball. He just does a great job.”
Williams’ PAT made it 24-7 with 4:18 to go in the quarter.
The Red Riots began their next drive in Portland territory, but after marching to the 1, a false start penalty, followed by back-to-back Preston incompletions (the second coming under duress from a hard charging Israel-Copeland), forced South Portland to give the ball over on downs.
The Bulldogs began at their 6 with 31.8 seconds to go in the third and after a 99 yard march in the first half, a 94 yard drive in the second wasn’t especially daunting.
A 17-yard Zukowski run on the final play of the third quarter gave the hosts some breathing room. South Portland later jumped offsides on a third-and-3 and Zukowski made the Red Riots pay with a 34-yard run on the next snap. On third-and-8 from the South Portland 29, Talbot dropped back and launched a perfect ball down the left sideline to Pitts-Young, who hauled it in and got into the end zone for a seemingly insurmountable 31-7 lead.
To their credit, the Red Riots didn’t buckle and with 6:51 remaining, Preston hit Susi with a pass and Susi did the rest, racing into the end zone for a 68-yard score and South Portland had a glimmer of life, down, 31-14.
Portland punted the ball away, but Preston threw his second interception (this one to sophomore Joe Esposito) with just under five minutes to go.
Five plays later, Talbot threw a high pass down the middle, but somehow, Ruhlin managed to snare it with one hand and since the catch was so impressive, it had to result in a touchdown, and Ruhlin fought his way into the end zone with 2:07 to play. One final PAT from Williams pushed the lead to 38-14.
The Bulldogs forced one final turnover by Owen, again as he was inches from the goal line, and Hargrove recovered in the end zone for a touchback with under a minute go play.
One Talbot knee later and Portland at last was able to celebrate a win in the “Battle of the Bridge,” 38-14.
“It feels great,” Zukowski said. “We’ve worked hard to beat them. It wasn’t enough until this year. I thought they moved the ball on us, but we made big plays at the right time. We had two goal-line stands. I think we we wore their O line down. Our defensive linemen were in the backfield. I have to give it to the line. They play well. They show what to do in practice. We saw (South Portland) come back against Scarborough, so we were ready to go at halftime.”
“It was a great experience,’ Hargrove said. “It’s my first time in this game. It’s a great group of brothers. I could tell this meant a lot to them. I really felt it in school today, everybody was excited about the ‘Battle of the Bridge.’ We knew South Portland was a good team. We knew we’d have to be on our Ps and Qs to get a ‘W.'”
“Our defense is overlooked,” added Hartman. “We’re number two in the conference. A lot of our offense comes off our defense. Athletically, we’re talented. I think our offensive line’s the best. It’s mental growth. We’ve fought through adversity. That wouldn’t have happened last year.”
Zukowski, the second-leading rusher in Eastern Class A and a player who has to be getting some serious consideration for the Fitzpatrick Trophy, was clearly the best player on the field, gaining 261 yards with two TDs on 33 carries.
“I knew we had to run it down their throat and win the game,” Hargrove said. “(Zukowski) just knows what to do when he gets the ball. He has great vision, strong feet, he’s got the biggest heart I’ve ever seen in a football player.”
“We have the four-headed monster, but (Zukowski’s) the key,” Hartman said. “Last year, I didn’t want to beat up on him. He’s a little guy. He got beaten up tonight, but he’s bouncing around like a little kid. He’s tough. He’s great. All the superlatives.”
Hargrove had 41 yards on seven rushes, Talbot 35 (and a score) on 11 attempts and Pitts-Young 32 on three rushes.
Portland finished with a 369-179 edge on the ground.
Talbot completed 6-of-10 passes for 76 yards and two scores.
“Jordan Talbot’s growth at quarterback is fueling this,” Hartman said. “Zuk does his part. They all do their part, but Jordan made some incredible passes tonight.”
Pitts-Young was Talbot’s top target, grabbing three passes for 44 yards and a TD. Hargrove, Ruhlin and Zukowski each had one reception.
The Bulldogs had a slight 381-377 edge in yardage and had way to many penalties (10, good for 96 yards), but five forced turnovers (and none committed) were the difference.
South Portland was paced by Preston’s 15-of-28 passing, good for 232 yards. He threw for one score and was intercepted twice. Preston gained 95 yards on 13 rushes, while DiBiase had 84 and a TD on 15 attempts. Owen led all receivers with six for 62 yards. Muller had three for 48. Susi only caught one ball, but it went for 68 yards and a TD.
The Red Riots had six penalties for 40 yards and coughed the ball up on five occasions.
“We had too many turnovers,” lamented Stinson. “(Portland’s) way too good of a football team to come out and give second chances to. We had turnovers, we had drops, missed assignments. Portland smacked us in the mouth pretty dam good for 48 minutes and I thought the score reflected that. We didn’t make enough plays to be in a game against such a quality opponent.”
All eyes on Nov. 23
South Portland projects to be the No. 3 seed in Western A and will likely host Sanford (which was 3-4 entering its finale) in next week’s quarterfinals.
“We have to put it behind us and move forward, as we would have if we had won tonight,” Stinson said. “It’s November now. We have to improve and make a run in the tournament. It was a good journey, but we did enough to get to November.”
Portland will be second to Cheverus in Eastern A and will have a bye next weekend before hosting a semifinal Nov. 8 or 9, likely against Windham or Edward Little.
These Bulldogs are far from satisfied.
“You want to be undefeated, but 7-1 is very close,” Hargrove said. “Our team has a great audacity when it comes to winning. We want to come out, give our all and hope to come out on top on the scoreboard.”
“We’re ready for a bye week,” Zukowski said. “We have our minds on the Gold Ball. We have since the first day. We have to keep working hard in practice and fix the little mistakes. We have to be disciplined.”
“We’re just getting better,” Hartman added. “I think we need a mental break. We need to focus on football. We’ll come out and work on fundamentals and get back at it.”
Portland junior quarterback Jordan Talbot attempts to elude South Portland senior Joey DiBiase.
South Portland junior Hayden Owen looks for running room on a kickoff return.
South Portland senior Joey DiBiase makes a move.
Portland senior Jayvon Pitts-Young turns the corner.
South Portland senior quarterback Duncan Preston throws over Portland sophomore Brett Howell.
The “Z” train, senior Justin Zukowski, leaves seemingly the entire South Portland in his wake. Zukowski had 261 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 33 carries Friday.
South Portland senior Jordan Susi can’t handle a pass.
Recent Portland-South Portland results
(South Portland leads all-time series, 53-40-3)
@ South Portland 19 Portland 6
South Portland 20 @ Portland 7
@ South Portland 13 Portland 7
@ Portland 36 South Portland 33
Portland 20 @ South Portland 14 (OT)
South Portland 27 @ Portland 6
Portland 44 @ South Portland 23
@ Portland 55 South Portland 8
Portland 19 @ South Portland 7
@ Portland 42 South Portland 7
Portland 21 @ South Portland 20
Western A quarterfinals
@ Portland 21 South Portland 0
@ Portland 35 South Portland 6
Portland senior Jayvon Pitts-Young (4) congratulates sophomore John Williams after Williams’ 27-yard field goal just before halftime gives the Bulldogs a 17-0 lead. Portland never looked back and captured the “Battle of the Bridge,” 38-14.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.
Portland 38 South Portland 14
SP- 0 0 7 7- 14
P- 7 10 7 14- 38
P- Zukowski 10 run (Williams kick)
P- J. Talbot 2 run (Williams kick)
P- Williams 27 FG
SP- DiBiase 1 run (Mezzanotte kick)
P- Zukowski 22 run (Williams kick)
P- Pitts-Young 27 pass from J. Talbot (Williams kick)
SP- Susi 68 pass from Preston (Mezzanotte kick)
P- Ruhlin 15 pass from J. Talbot (William kick)
Rushing (Portland, 369-179)
SP- Preston 13-95, DiBiase 15-84-1
P- Zukowski 33-261-2, Hargrove 7-41, Talbot 11-35-1, Pitts-Young 3-32
Passing (SP, 232-76)
SP- Preston 15-28-232-0-2
P- J. Talbot 6-10-76-2-0
Receiving (SP, 232-76)
SP- Owen 6-62, Muller 3-48, DiBiase 2-34, Hammond 2-9, Susi 1-68-1, Stearns 1-11
P- Pitts-Young 3-44-1, Ruhlin 1-15-1, Zukowski 1-10, Hargrove 1-7