WINDHAM — Looking to exorcise the demons of recent past, the South Portland Red Riots football team returned to the gridiron Friday night with playoff aspirations to kick off the 2009 campaign.
They didn’t get much help from the schedule gods, traveling to battle a tough Windham Eagles team that most preseason prognosticators expect to challenge for the Western Class A title.
Still, the Red Riots looked tough in the early going, staying close at 6-6 until an ill-advised throw was intercepted with just over a minute left in the first half.
The Eagles rallied behind senior quarterback Jackson Taylor and marched 64 yards for a score that changed the complexion of the game.
The Eagles rode to an easy win, scoring on four consecutive possessions to start the second half and running away with a 40-13 victory in the season opener for both teams.
“We had a little momentum going there,” said Stinson. “That was a big swing, from having the chance be ahead 13-6, to being down 13-6. Windham’s a good football team. And we’re a good football team. They just had a little more polish. We hurt ourselves with penalties and first-game type mistakes. But like I told the team, the majority of the mistakes that we made we can start correcting tomorrow.”
The South Portland (0-1) offense was led by senior tailback Ryan Curit’s 193-yard, two- touchdown performance, including his 67-yard touchdown run off right tackle that tied the game 6-6 with just under nine minutes left in the second quarter. Curit, a three-sport star, punched in another touchdown late in the game.
Despite Curit’s contributions, which included 23 carries, the Red Riots’ offense struggled to move the football with any consistency. The offense racked up several drive-stalling penalties, which were magnified by an inability to successfully complete the center-quarterback exchange. South Portland fumbled the exchange seven times on the night, a frightening number considering the fundamental nature of the task.
“We’ve had some issues with the exchange in practice,” said Stinson. “It’s something we’ll have to address either with personnel or coaching. We can’t continue to struggle with that. We got two new guys in new positions, but we’ll get that figured out. Some of that is due to the fact that Windham has a tremendous nose guard.”
Windham’s Taylor, an early Fitzpatrick Trophy-favorite, dazzled in week 1, throwing for 305 yards and three touchdowns on 18-for-22 passing. The three-year starter completed five balls for 25 yards or more, including touchdown passes of 26-, 52- and 78-yards. His four-for-four effort and 35-yard sideline completion to the Red Riots’ 6-yard line highlighted the Eagles’ impressive two-minute drill to end the first half.
Tied 6-6 late in the first half, South Portland senior linebacker Mike Foley delivered a crushing blow on an unsuspecting Windham wide receiver that reverberated down the entire Red Riots sideline.
Foley’s facemask-to-facemask hit, one of two he delivered in the game, jarred the football loose and brought out the Windham punt squad. After a poor snap, the kick never happened, setting up first-and-10 for South Portland at the Eagles 25-yard line with momentum and 1:17 left in first half.
But after a holding penalty pushed the Red Riots back 15 yards to the 40, senior quarterback Jon DiBiase, under heavy pressure, lofted a pass over the middle intended for no one in particular. The Eagles intercepted and the game would never be the same again.
Taylor marched the Eagles’ 68 yards in just 26 seconds to take a 13-6 lead at halftime. On first-and-10 with 32-seconds left, Taylor hit senior Matt Gledhill with a perfect ball down the right sideline for a 35-yard gain to the 6. Windham (1-0) tailback Jack Mallis did the honors, scoring on the toss behind an unbalanced right side of the line on the next play.
Taylor, looking every bit like the real deal, also surprised the Red Riots’ on fourth-and-inches in the first quarter when he hit Jake Darling on a tight-end slip for 26 yards and the Eagles’ first touchdown.
“The difference with their quarterback and the others we face is speed of release and his delivery,” said Stinson. “He’s putting it in there at college level speed. It hurts our defenders because they have the time to react like they normally would. He’s an outstanding quarterback. He changes their culture. The receivers want to run routes for him. The linemen want to block for him. They were able enhance their biggest strength.”
On the Eagles’ second possession of the second half, Taylor floated a beautiful deep ball for a 52-yard touchdown to Drew Gagnon. Next he dropped a middle screen off to Mallis for a 78-yard touchdown pass on the third possession of the second half. The Taylor-to-Mallis screen pass for six put the Eagles’ up 34-6 to start the fourth quarter.
Mallis happens to also be a beast of a running back, hurting the Red Riots on the ground throughout with 17 carries for 114 yards and two touchdowns. His powerful fourth quarter rumble for 35 yards set up a 4-yard Taylor keeper and ended the night for both players with a 40-6 lead and seven-minutes left in the contest.
After Windham’s final score, the Red Riots got another outstanding play from Foley in a game full of them. Powerful, yet fast, he took the ensuing kickoff and went 61 yards directly up the center of the field. Foley amassed well over 100 yards in the return game, but was tripped up at the 29-yard line by the Eagles’ last line of defense, the kicker.
The Red Riots gained a pair of first downs on rushes from Curit to reach the 10-yard line, but a dropped pass in the end zone and another fumbled exchange on fourth-and-goal was recovered by Windham.
With Taylor out, the Eagles went three-and-out, and the Red Riots took over and went 32-yards for the final score.
Curit carried the ball on all four plays of the final drive, gaining 17-, 3- and 4-yards, before barreling in for a 9-yard touchdown with one-minute left in the game.
Keeping things in perspective, Windham is considered one of the league’s top teams, and in Taylor has an elite player at a marquee position. Opening the season on the road in Windham was not exactly a favorable draw. The Red Riots have some talented players in Curit, Foley, senior Spencer Bowring, juniors Cal Skillings and Matt Welch. It will be up the younger role players to step and help this team reach the playoffs.
The Red Riots will look to rebound with a win Friday at home against Westbrook (0-1 after a 48-2 loss to defending state champion Bonny Eagle).