Turnovers always hurt. In the playoffs they can be crushing.
Second-seeded Portland forced five turnovers and scored off four of them, rolling to a 55-7 victory over third-ranked Windham in an Eastern Class A football semifinal Friday night at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
Justin Zukowski ran 23 times for 119 yards and five touchdowns, and Jayvon Pitts-Young had an interception, a fumble recovery and a 22-yard touchdown run to lead the Bulldogs (8-1) to the regional final next weekend.
Portland will play Cheverus or Bangor, who will meet at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Cheverus High.
“We get a lot of energy (off turnovers),” Pitts-Young said. “It’s a team effort. We just get excited for each other and it charges everyone up.”
Liam Sullivan rushed 25 times for 109 of Windham’s 159 yards, including a 28-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter against Portland’s reserves.
Wary of letting Portland handle the ball, Windham opened the game by recovering an onside kick on the Portland 48. The Eagles (5-5) then went into a stall offense, letting the clock run as long as possible between plays. Portland was patient on the opening series and forced a punt after three plays.
“They’re loaded with athletes, there’s no doubt about it,” Windham Coach Matt Perkins said. “I think their line play is great. They do a real good job of getting off the ball. We made a ton of mistakes, four silly ones that gave up touchdowns. You can’t do that against a good team.”
Ron Hargrove showed the wisdom of Windham’s strategy, returning the punt 71 yards for a touchdown. John Williams’ point-after try was good and Portland led 7-0 just 2:40 into the game.
“I caught the ball and saw the middle open up like the Red Sea,” Hargrove said. “I just took off.”
The Eagles’ next series ended in Pitts-Young’s arms; he intercepted Tyler Johnson’s pass at the Portland 40 and returned it 41 yards to the Windham 31. Six plays later, Zukowski pounded in from 4 yards. Williams’ kick made it 14-0.
Just as impressive was the Bulldogs’ defense, which held the Eagles to eight first downs, just three against Portland’s first-team defense.
“You have to sustain your blocks,” Perkins said. “They’re very good at getting off blocks and they’re fast.”
The Eagles’ only sustained drive came during an eight-minute span bridging the third and fourth quarters, when they marched 90 yards in 14 plays to set up Sullivan’s touchdown run.
“Our defense came out and played very well,” Portland Coach Jim Hartman said. “(Windham is) a good offensive team so I’m very pleased. Zukowski and Joe Esposito, our inside linebackers, had a heck of a game, both of them.”
“We spend a lot more time on defense than we do on offense,” Hargrove said, “because defense wins championships.”
Now the Bulldogs are playing for the regional championship. They are familiar with both Cheverus and Bangor.
Cheverus beat Portland 35-25 in the opener on Sept. 6, and the Bulldogs beat the Rams 33-20 on Sept. 28.
“You’ve got to get better,” Hartman said. “It’s not who you’re playing. Bangor and Cheverus are both great programs. We’ve just got to get better to play with these guys.”