BOX SCORE

Portland 32 South Portland 7

P- 12 8 0 12- 32
SP- 0 0 7 0- 7

First quarter
P- Isajar 35 pass from Crosby (rush failed)
P- Boyle 2 run (rush failed)

Second quarter
P- DiMillo 20 interception return (DiMillo pass from Crosby)

Third quarter
SP- Romero 87 kickoff return (Demers kick)

Fourth quarter
P- Boyle 3 run (pass failed)
P- Boyle 2 run (pass failed)

SOUTH PORTLAND—Two years ago, Portland’s football team, featuring an array of up-and-coming sophomores, took its lumps when it met rival South Portland in the 105th “Battle of the Bridge,” losing, 35-7.

Flash forward two years to Saturday afternoon at Martin Memorial Field, where the Bulldogs, now featuring a group of seasoned senior veterans, earned a dose of revenge.

Senior quarterback Grant Crosby, who was intercepted twice in that 2019 game, put his team on top to stay four minutes into the contest with a pretty 35-yard touchdown pass to senior Nathan Isajar.

After a defensive stop, Portland drove again and senior Brandon Boyle, who played for Deering in 2019, scored his first touchdown of the day, on a 2-yard rush, to make it 12-0 after one quarter.

The Bulldogs’ defense, which excelled all afternoon, then got involved in the scoring, as senior Aidan DiMillo put on an athletic show, intercepting a pass with one hand before racing 20 yards for another TD and at the half, Portland was in command, up, 20-0.

The Red Riots got right back in it on the first play of the second half, when senior Antonio Romero returned the kickoff 87 yards to paydirt, but their offense never could produce points and the Bulldogs put it away in the fourth period, as Boyle scored on rushes of 3-yards and 2-yards, slamming the door on a 32-7 victory.

Portland improved to 7-0 on the season, ensured it won’t have to leave Fitzpatrick Stadium throughout the postseason and in the process, handed South Portland its fourth loss in seven outings this fall.

“Two years ago, we were looking forward to this point,” said Bulldogs coach Jason McLeod. “We played a lot of freshmen and sophomores two years ago and we told them that we’d need them to be at a certain level two years (later) and here we are. The luster of this game hasn’t been lost in our eyes or (South Portland’s). It’s an important part of the year for us and it’s something we prepare for like it has meaning for us.”

Bulldogs bragging rights

In the teams’ most recent meeting, in 2019, South Portland rolled to a 35-7 victory in Portland to take a 56-45 (with three ties) all-time lead in the series, which dates to 1907.

After not being able to play competitive football a year ago, both schools were eager to return to action this fall and so far, the Bulldogs have had no peer.

After making a statement on Opening Night with a 30-18 win at Kennebunk, Portland blanked rival Deering (40-0), handled visiting Noble (21-6), won at Gorham (35-8), earned its biggest win of the season at reigning Class B champion Marshwood (28-14), then dominated visiting Biddeford a week ago, 55-8.

The Red Riots, meanwhile, opened with a 40-3 home loss to Class A powerhouse Scarborough, then got in the win column, 26-0, at Massabesic, before outscoring visiting Biddeford, 59-34. Losses at Marshwood (40-7) and at home to Kennebunk (13-12) followed before South Portland got back on track last weekend with a 30-14 victory at Noble.

Saturday, on a breezy but pleasant afternoon (65 degrees at kickoff which occasional bouts of sunshine), the Bulldogs took control early and never looked back, beating the Red Riots for the first time in three years.

South Portland won the opening coin toss, but deferred possession to the second half and after junior Kennedy Charles returned the opening kickoff 20 yards, Portland drove 78 yards in eight plays to take the lead.

Boyle gained just one yard on first down and seniors Nate Rende and Brady Frank threw sophomore Reegan Buck for a four-yard loss on second down, but on third-and-13, Crosby threw a quick pass to the right to junior Andrew Brewer, who found running room and gained 31 yards to midfield. Boyle then ran for three yards and Buck gained eight more for a first down at the Red Riots’ 39. After Crosby threw incomplete, he ran for four yards, setting up third-and-6 where again, the Bulldogs came up with a big play through the air, as Crosby launched a bomb down the left sideline which Isajar, who easily blew past the defense, caught for a 35-yard touchdown and with 7:57 left in the opening stanza, even after a two-point conversion rush by Charles was stopped, the visitors had the advantage for good, 6-0.

South Portland started at its 35 had a promising opening drive as well, but couldn’t finish.

After senior quarterback Nate Rend hit senior Ryan Thurber for five yards, Rende kept the ball for two more before he found senior Alex Domingos for a five-yard pass play and a first down at the 47. After Portland senior Anthony Thatch held senior Finn O’Connell to no gain, junior Johnny Poole gained three yards and on the play, the Bulldogs were called for a personal foul facemask penalty to tack on 15 more yards, giving the Red Riots first down at Portland’s 35. But after Rende kept the ball for three yards, he threw incomplete, then, after a false start penalty cost South Portland five yards, on third-and-12, Thatch broke up a Rende pass, forcing a punt.

After a nice 22 yard punt return from Boyle, the Bulldogs started their second possession at their 28 with 3:30 to go in the first period and they needed just 2 minutes, 22 seconds and eight plays to double their lead.

After Boyle gained two yards on first down, Crosby threw incomplete, but on third-and-8, Buck gained five yards and a personal foul facemask penalty on the Red Riots gave Portland a first down at midfield. Crosby then kept the ball for 15 yards on a keeper left before Boyle broke free for 21 more and a first down at the South Portland 14. After Boyle ran for nine more yards, a personal foul was called on South Portland and the ball was moved half the distance to the goal, to the 3. Boyle was held to one yard, then he got the ball again and with 1:08 left in the quarter, he scored on a 2-yard burst. Boyle’s two-point conversion rush attempt was stuffed, but the Bulldogs had a 12-0 advantage.

The Red Riots took over at their 33 and dynamic junior Jaelen Jackson took over under the center, but after Romero was dropped for a three-yard loss by senior Franco Katunda, Jackson kept the ball and gained five yards before fumbling and DiMillo recovered at the South Portland 34.

On the final play of the first period, which saw it enjoy a 164-29 advantage in yardage, Portland got a 14-yard run from Katunda for a first down at the 20, but this time, the Bulldogs wouldn’t score.

On the opening play of the second quarter, Crosby kept the ball for six yards, but Boyle lost a yard and after Crosby ran for four yards, Boyle was held to no gain on fourth-and-1 and the Red Riots got the ball back at their 11.

For the second straight drive, South Portland would turn the ball over, but this time, it led directly to points.

After Rende threw incomplete, Portland jumped offsides, but after O’Connell was held to no gain, Rende dropped back to throw on third-and-5 and his pass to the right was overthrown and DiMillo somehow stuck out his left hand, managed to secure the ball, then easily ran in to complete a 20-yard interception return for a score with 9:12 left in the first half.

“The (receiver) ran a hitch route and the QB just overthrew him and by instinct, I just put my left hand out and (the ball) stuck and I just took it back,” said DiMillo. ‘We have so many athletes on our defense. You can’t just go at one guy. And we hit hard.”

Crosby then connected with DiMillo, who made a diving, juggling catch, for the two-point conversion and a 20-0 lead.

The Red Riots started their next drive at their 37 with Jackson at quarterback and Thurber ran for 15 yards and a first down at Portland’s 48, but after Jackson ran for one yard, a false start penalty and a seven-yard Jackson scramble, he scrambled again and was dragged down for a six-yard loss, forcing a punt.

With 7:25 to play in the half, the Bulldogs started at their 16 and went three-and-out, as Boyle lost a yard, Thurber dropped Crosby for a two-yard loss and after a delay of game penalty, Boyle only ran for three yards, forcing a punt, which was nearly blocked and saw Jackson return the ball 19 yards to Portland’s 29.

Rende came back in at quarterback and after O’Connell couldn’t gain any yardage, Rende threw incomplete. On third-and-10, South Portland appeared poised to finally make some noise offensively, as Rende threw to junior Nolan Hobbs in the flat and after a defensive back fell down, Hobbs rumbled all the way to the 3, but on the play, a personal foul was called, negated the gain and moved the Red Riots all the way back to their 44. Rende threw incomplete again and South Portland had to punt.

With 2:03 left before halftime, the Bulldogs started at their 10 and began to drive, as Crosby threw a shovel pass to Brewer for six yards and Boyle ran for six more, but Crosby twice threw incomplete and Buck only gained two yards on third-and-8, necessitating another punt.

Thatch took the snap and had to side-step a rusher before booting the ball away and the Red Riots took over at their 46 with 28.3 seconds to go.

Rende threw incomplete, then ran for 11 yards, but he was hurt on the play and wouldn’t return. Jackson picked up five more yards, then threw to Hobbs, who gained 18 yards to the Portland 20, but time ran out and the Bulldogs took a 20-0 advantage to the half.

In the first 24 minutes, Portland had 202 yards of offense to South Portland’s 70, while the Red Riots turned the ball over twice to none for the Bulldogs.

“We forced turnovers and didn’t turn the ball over on offense and did what we were supposed to do to win the game,” McLeod said.

South Portland needed a spark when the second half began and got it immediately, when Romero fielded the kickoff at his 13, ran to his right, broke a tackle, then burst free and while Portland gave chase, it couldn’t catch him and Romero completed the electrifying 87-yard kickoff return to get the Red Riots on the board. Junior Brady Demers added the extra point and the hosts had life, down, 20-7.

South Portland’s defense then stepped up and got the ball back.

After Buck ran for a yard, Crosby threaded a 14-yard pass to Isajar through traffic for a first down at midfield, but an illegal procedure penalty backed Portland up and after Crosby found Brewer for 10 yards, he threw incomplete, then Buck was dropped by Hobbs for a two-yard loss, forcing a punt.

Again, Thatch had to elude the rush and he barely did so, running to his right before kicking the ball and instead of taking over in Bulldogs’ territory, the Red Riots were disheartened to watch as Thatch’s punt bounced and bounced and rolled and rolled all the way to the South Portland 6.

“I wanted to run, but I kicked it,” Thatch said. “I think I got a little lucky there.”

The Red Riots picked up a first down, as Romero ran for three yards, Thurber gained two, then Jackson hit junior Joshua Sparacio on a screen pass for 10 yards to the 21. After Poole gained two yards, Thurber caught a pass for four and after Jackson kept for three more, on fourth-and-1, South Portland faked a punt and Sparacio, the up-man, ran for six yards and a first down at the 36.

But that’s as good as it would get for the Red Riots, as Romero was dropped for a four-yard loss and picked up a disqualifying personal foul penalty on the play, backing South Portland up 15 more yards. Jackson was then dropped for a sack and an eight-yard loss and although Domingos caught a seven yard pass on third-and-37, it wasn’t anywhere near enough for a first down and the Red Riots had to punt.

Which this time, they did, but junior Xander Smith broke in and blocked the punt and Portland took over at the South Portland 17 with 2:07 left in the third quarter.

In a drive that spanned the end of the third period and the start of the fourth, the Bulldogs needed four plays to regain control of the contest.

After Crosby kept the ball for three yards, Boyle lost one and Crosby connected with DiMillo for seven yards on third-and-8 on the final play of the quarter.

The Red Riots then jumped offsides to start the final stanza, giving Portland a first-and-goal from the 3 and Boyle did the rest, bulling in for a 3-yard score with 11:55 remaining. A two-point conversion pass failed, but the Bulldogs were up, 26-7.

South Portland still had faint hope when O’Connell returned the ensuing kickoff to the Red Riots’ 44, but a fumbled snap led to a five-yard loss, a false start cost five more yards, Jackson scrambled for four yards, then he threw incomplete, forcing another punt.

Which again led to disaster for the home team, as the snap hit the up-man and landed on the ground at the South Portland 40, which is where Portland began its next drive.

After Boyle ran for a yard, Crosby connected with Buck for 17 yards and a first down at the 22. Boyle then nearly broke it, racing down to the 2 before Boyle scored on a 2-yard dive with 7:43 left. The two-point conversion pass failed again, but the Bulldogs were firmly in control, leading, 32-7.

The Red Riots got one final possession, starting from their 38. After Jackson ran for six yards, then lost two, he picked up 12 and a first down at the Portland 46. Poole ran for seven yards, but Jackson was stuffed for no gain, then threw incomplete. On fourth-and-3, Jackson found Hobbs for 12 yards and a first down at the 27, but Jackson twice threw incomplete. Jackson then ran for 17 yards, setting up first-and-goal from the 10. South Portland couldn’t finish, however, as Jackson threw incomplete and after Poole was dropped for a six-yard loss, then he caught a pass from Jackson to get the yards back, Jackson threw incomplete and South Portland turned the ball over on downs.

With 1:16 to go, the Bulldogs took over at their 10 and Crosby twice took a knee to run out the clock and Portland celebrated a 32-7 victory.

“We want to win more than any team in the state,” DiMillo said. “It feels good to return the favor from two years ago. We’re taking the ‘Bridge’ trophy home with us and it feels good. A big part of our win today was game planning. The coaches do a really good job of that.”

“We go 100 percent in practice and play like it’s a game and I think that makes us stand out against other teams,” said Thatch. “I was a little nervous (after their touchdown). That could have brought down our momentum, but our defense stuck it out. We just had to get hyped.”

Portland finished with 275 yards of offense, overcame five penalties for 35 yards and didn’t turn the ball over once.

“It should be an emotional game and I’m glad our kids kept their cool,” McLeod said. “I’m glad we won the turnover battle. I’m glad we swarmed the ball. I’m glad when things got tough for us, we persevered, made adjustments and got better. Early on, the field the was kind of spongy, the wind was swirling a different way, not truly ideal conditions offensively. We had to hang our hat defensively. We swarmed the ball and the guys did what they’re coached to do with their various formations and shifts. We did well with it.”

Crosby completed 7-of-12 pass attempts, good for 120 yards and a touchdown. He ran six times for 30 yards.

Boyle scored three TDs and gained 65 yards on 17 carries.

Buck rushed five times for 12 yards and caught one pass for 17.

Katunda had one carry for 14 yards.

Brewer caught three balls for 47 yards, Isajar had two receptions for 49 yards and a touchdown and DiMillo had one catch for 7 yards.

Self-defeating

South Portland only managed 128 yards, turned the ball over twice and was flagged nine times, good for 82 costly yards.

“I think it’s 10 steps forward and 20 steps back,” lamented Red Riots coach Aaron Filieo. “We didn’t help ourselves at all. In a game like this, you just can’t take the bait. Our kids took the bait and we ended up on the short end of that stick. It’s turnovers and penalties. Execution-wise, we’re better in that regard than we were earlier in the season. We’re getting lined up, but we jump offsides and take the bait on the stuff after the whistle. We can’t do that. That’s not who we are.”

Before leaving with an apparent shoulder injury, Rende completed 3-of-10 pass attempts for 28 yards with an interception. He ran three times for 16 yards.

Jackson came in and went 5-of-11 passing for 39 yards. He ran 13 times, good for 47 yards.

Poole gained 6 yards on four carries and had one reception for 6 yards.

O’Connell ran four times for 6 yards.

Thurber caught two passes for 9 yards and had two rushes for 17 yards.

Hobbs caught two balls for 30 yards, Domingos had two catches for 12 yards and Sparacio had one reception for 10.

“Portland’s good,” Filieo said. “They’re undefeated for a reason. We knew they’d fly around defensively. They took it to us. They just got off blocks and ran to the ball very well. They run downhill.

“In order to win football games, you can’t create unforced errors left and right. The games we played well in and won, we played clean. The games we’ve struggled in and had a hard time getting rhythm, we just hurt ourselves.”

Final tune-up

Each team has one game left before the Class B South playoffs commence.

South Portland closes at Gorham Friday night.

“We need internal reflection for this last push,” said Filieo. “We’ve played enough football at this point to be able to not do what we did today. Gorham’s very physical. We have to beat them and if we do, then we could have a home playoff game.”

Portland finishes at home versus Lewiston Friday, as it looks to go 8-0 for the first time since 2015. The Bulldogs then will be at home throughout the playoffs and if they get to the Class B state final, that game will be at Fitzpatrick Stadium as well.

“I’m very confident that we can win states,” Thatch said. “If we can keep doing what we’re doing now, we’ll be fine.”

“We can still be a lot better,” said DiMillo. “We’re winning these games by a decent amount of points, but we still have room for improvement and we’ll get there. Everyone has to come to us now. We won’t have to take any yellow busses any more. That feels good.”

“Not having to leave our homefield the rest of the way is a big deal for us,” McLeod added. “I’m ecstatic. The kids are doing what they’re supposed to do and we’re getting better every week. We need to keep getting better with situational awareness. There are times we’re a little bit tight. We have to toughen up a little bit on offense and grind out first downs and keep the clock running.

“We have a bulls-eye on our on back. Teams want to put their best effort on the field against us and we have to know that each and every week.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

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