One big play – an 80-yard run by Joe Esposito midway through the second quarter – made the difference Friday night as Portland won the Class A North football title with a 24-7 victory over Windham at Fitzpatrick Stadium.

Esposito’s run came on the first play after Windham had taken the lead, and the Bulldogs remained in charge thereafter, advancing to the state final for the first time since defeating Edward Little 41-6 in 2002.

The Bulldogs (10-0) will play Thornton Academy or Bonny Eagle – who meet Saturday at Saco – on Nov. 21 at Fitzpatrick Stadium.

Esposito finished with 186 yards on 32 carries for Portland, which shut down the Eagles (7-3) and won the game of field position.

“Field position wins games,” said Portland Coach Jim Hartman.

Esposito was tough to bring down, dragging tacklers most of the game. On his long touchdown run, Esposito appeared to be stopped but kept driving, breaking out of a pack of tacklers, then cutting back at the 20 to go in. Although the play appeared over, Esposito kept his head up and his feet churning.

“I even put my head down,” said Portland assistant coach Mike Rutherford.

Windham had just taken a 7-3 lead on a 16-yard run by Cam Hoffses.

“We were upset about giving up that touchdown,” said Esposito. “We don’t like being behind. I didn’t want to stop. My tight end made a great block.”

The Bulldogs also played with a chip on their shoulders.

“A lot of people said we can’t do anything against good teams,” said Esposito. the Class A North Player of the Year. “That our offensive line isn’t as good as those from the top teams. We played a good team tonight and we’ll be playing another good team in a week. We’re just having fun.”

Portland led 10-7 at halftime, then scored on its first drive of the second half. A 15-yard punt return by Jake Knop gave the Bulldogs good field position at the Windham 34. On third down, Issiah Bachelder passed to Nick Archambault for 10 yards.

Esposito then ran for 7, 8 and 6 yards to the 1 before Bachelder scored on second down. John Williams’ placement made it 17-7.

Field position and a tough defense kept Portland in control the entire second half.

“Everybody did their jobs and we held our composure,” said Hartman. “(Esposito) is a tough kid. He wasn’t our main back until halfway through the Cheverus game.”

George Chaison-Lapine was the Bulldogs’ No. 1 back early in the season, but a high ankle sprain against the Stags has slowed him.

“George should be ready for next week,” said Hartman.

Kekoa Farnsworth recovered a Windham fumble at the 38 early in the fourth quarter and the Bulldogs took advantage, scoring in eight plays.

The key was a 14-yard run by Archambault, who scored three plays later from the 4 with 6:31 left.

Portland pressured Windham quarterback Desmond Leslie for most of the game.

“They were sticking us behind the line of scrimmage,” said Windham Coach Matt Perkins. “I thought we had a little momentum in the first half but then they popped the big one. It was all about field position in the second half.”

Despite contending with injuries all season, Windham made it to its second straight regional final. Last year the Eagles beat Cheverus to win Class A North.

“I’ve never been around a team that had to face so much adversity,” said Perkins. “I can’t say enough about our senior leadership. Dylan Koza and Eric Webb were great helping the younger kids learn their roles. We started four freshmen tonight.”

The Bulldogs took a 3-0 lead on a 25-yard field goal by Williams late in the first quarter. An interception by Kyle Houser led to Windham’s only score. Leslie followed with a 23-yard run and three plays later, Hoffses scored from the 16.

Windham didn’t threaten again until late in the game.

“This is one of the best Portland defenses we’ve had,” said Rutherford. “These kids can play defense.”