SOUTH PORTLAND — A season that began with so much promise ended with a thud Saturday afternoon.

The Portland football team, considered by many to be a legitimate contender for the Western Class A title, ended at 2-6 after a 13-7 loss at rival South Portland in the 95th version of the “Battle of the Bridge.”

The Bulldogs were a playoff team in 2009, but stumbled out of the gate this fall, allowing crosstown rival Deering to drive the field in the waning moments of the opener (a 21-14 loss), then fell, 55-20, at Bonny Eagle in a playoff rematch. After downing visiting Westbrook, 27-15, Portland couldn’t hold a 12-point fourth quarter lead and lost, 22-19, at Cheverus. A 35-7 home loss to Biddeford followed. The Bulldogs kept hope alive with a 42-22 victory at Gorham, but after losing key players due to disciplinary issues, Portland lost, 20-14, at home to Windham.

The Bulldogs had been eliminated from postseason consideration by the time they took the field Saturday, but they played hard regardless against a South Portland foe that was seeking revenge after blowing a huge lead in last year’s Bridge game (a 36-33 Portland win).

In fact, Portland won the previous two Battle of the Bridge games in dramatic fashion on the last play of the game.

Two years ago, the Bulldogs won in overtime on a short touchdown run by tailback Imahdi Zagon at South Portland. Last year Zagon powered in from the 5-yard line to close out the comeback win. But this year, as a senior, Zagon was not able to play for Portland after he was suspended, along with three other players, for the last two games of the regular season.

Red Riots junior tailback Joey DiBiase will go down in the books as the star of the 2010 annual showdown. DiBiase broke free for a 34-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage and finished with a game-high 206 yards rushing, helping the Red Riots take a 52-40-3 lead in the all-time series that dates back to 1907.

DiBiase racked up big yards against the Bulldogs on Saturday behind an experienced offensive line he credits with “playing unbelievable” all season. Interestingly enough, after putting the Red Riots on top, 7-0, just over a minute into the game on a zig-zagging 34-yard TD run, DiBiase tacked on another 172 yards on the ground, but somehow would not reach the end zone for a second time. Instead, the game would turn into a defensive struggle riddled with turnovers and punts for both teams the rest of the way.

The middle two quarters were scoreless, with the Red Riots clinging to a 7-0 lead at the half and still to end the third quarter. South Portland finally punched in another score to extend the advantage to 13-0 after senior Jacob Stanley went in from the 3-yard line just inside the fourth. The Red Riots missed the point-after, but did take a two-score lead.

As if on cue, the Portland offense took the kickoff and suddenly sprung to life. The Bulldogs simply stuffed the football into senior Caleb Kenney’s gut and watched as he thundered 65-yards down the field for the score. There’s not a whole lot of fancy footwork taking place when Kenney has the ball in his clutches, but if anyone took a poll he would be right at the top of the list of players no one feels like tackling. Kenney rushed 29 times for 104 yards against the Red Riots, including his two-yard touchdown with 4:41 left in the fourth quarter that pulled the Bulldogs within 13-7.

Suddenly, things went from manageable to frightening for South Portland. The Bulldogs forced another three-and-out, a poor snap on the punt got away and Portland senior Nemanja Jankovic recovered inside the 10-yard line with four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

Portland’s offense charged back out on the field looking to steal the Bridge game for the third straight season. Senior quarterback Matt McInnis went right back to Kenney on the ground and two carries for six yards set up third-and-goal from the 2 for the Bulldogs. But a short pass fell incomplete and the Red Riots defense came up huge when senior Evan Indorf chased down Kenney on a screen play and wrestled him down a yard shy to protect the lead.

The Red Riots defense played its game of the season on Saturday, holding Portland scoreless for the first 43:19 of the game, pitching the dramatic goal-line stand late in the fourth and after punting back to the Bulldogs, forcing one more turnover on downs to finally secure the win with only 40 seconds remaining.

The Bulldogs had a first down with only 1:41 left to go 49 yards and, at the very least, tie the score. McInnis connected twice to sophomore Seamus Kilbride down to the 30. But Portland would come up short.

Kenney ran twice for short gains and McInnis threw incomplete to set up a fourth down at the Red Riots’ 24. After briefly juggling the exchange, McInnis tossed left to sophomore Nick Volger racing for the first down marker. But with time running out and the Red Riots defense closing in quickly, Volger was briefly disoriented and thought he had the first down marker. Looking to stop the clock, he stepped out-of-bounds prematurely to end it.

“I’m not sure it was all South Portland’s defense,” said Kenney. “It’s obvious they played a great game, but our offense couldn’t do anything right. It was mostly just a sloppy game. We didn’t get any push upfront and they had great field position all day.”

Portland will miss the playoffs for the third time in four years. The Bulldogs started the season out with consecutive losses and never did recover in coach Mike Bailey’s 25th season.

“We definitely had our chances against South Portland,” said Bailey. “I thought we could have played a little better in the first half, but we kind of woke up in the second half and had a couple of chances to either tie the game or win it and we just came up short. That sort of typifies our season. Obviously it hurt not to be at full strength and I firmly believe had we had Imahdi we would have won those last two games and been in the playoffs. It was absolutely out of character for him. But I have to look at myself in the mirror every morning and I did what I had to do.

“We put high expectations on ourselves this year as well as the outside expectations. But from the get-go the season was just a little off. We lost Will Walsh at running back for almost the entire season and he was part of our 1-2 punch, and we lost Andrew Poston for the season and that’s two more positions. He would have been an experienced defensive back for us and a flanker on offense. When you lose six starters out of 22, every team is going to go down. But I felt the kids that we had on the field played admirably.”

Sidebar Elements

Portland senior Gary MacDonald skies to make a highlight-reel interception during Saturday’s Battle of the Bridge game at South Portland. The Bulldogs played a strong defensive game, but lost, 13-7.

Portland senior Dylan Kenney barrels into the end zone for his team’s lone touchdown.

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