(photos by David Jenkins)
PORTAGEVILLE - The last time the Portageville Bulldogs made it to the state quarterfinals in football, they defeated the Lutheran North Crusaders 34-33 in a stunning upset in 1997.
On Monday night at Vic Reaves Stadium, the Bulldogs were hoping history would repeat itself against Lutheran North in a Class 2 state quarterfinal game.
But there would be no upset of the top-ranked Crusaders this time as the St. Louis private school intercepted a Hail Mary pass at the final horn to win 13-7.
"We just had our two deep and were covering them underneath man and were hoping that if they throw it up we've got enough people there to get it," said Lutheran North head coach Jim Manion.
The Bulldogs took over at their own 24 with no timeouts left. Back-to-back screen passes to Kyle Ezell and Aaron Bidewell, who both subsequently got out of bounds to stop the clock, set up the Bulldogs at the Crusader 44-yard line for one final play with five seconds left.
Quarterback Lance Penn's pass reached the end zone but Crusader defensive back Keith Wyatt was waiting and intercepted the pass to preserve the win.
"I was really hoping we would knock it down," said Manion. "And we got it instead so that's fine. It was scary. It was a really tough ballgame. I thought those kids (Portageville) played their guts out. You could tell just by watching film that they come off the ball very hard and were very aggressive. We had to go like crazy to keep up. That's what high school football is all about."
The Crusaders (12-0) move on to play Centralia in the semifinals on Saturday for the right to play in the Show-Me Bowl in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
Portageville, ranked No. 6 in Class 2, ends its season at 9-2, the team's best mark since 1995.
Portageville head coach Jim McKay suspected his team would be physically out-matched against a Crusader team that averaged 6-foot-3, 254 pounds across its front five.
But McKay said his team's loss to Bruceton (Tenn.), 28-7 in Week 7, prepared his team for anything the Crusaders brought to the table.
"We weren't in awe of them," said McKay. "I think the thing that probably helped us about as much as anything was when we played Bruceton, Tenn. They've got a tremendous program over there and we had a similar experience with them. I didn't think there would be anybody we'd play that we'd be in awe of after playing them."
Despite the size disadvantage, the Bulldog front line held its own. The Crusaders only out-gained Portageville 256 to 226 in total offense.
"I was kind of worried about that because there was such a difference in size," said McKay. "I figured they would load up and run it straight at us and whip us on the line. But we've got a good line and the kids held up real well."
The Crusaders were able to build a 13-0 lead on the Bulldogs early in the game.
Lutheran North engineered a 12-play, 63-yard drive capped by Jeff Horton's 1-yard plunge with 4:28 left in the first quarter. The drive, kept alive by two Portageville off-sides penalties on 4th-and-8, lasted six minutes and 29 seconds.
A Penn fumble on a quarterback sack deep in Portageville territory set up the Crusaders' second touchdown, a Horton 8-yard run on an option play with 10:04 left in the second quarter.
The two-point conversion run failed, leaving the score at 13-0.
Horton, who entered the game with 1,911 yards rushing, finished with 117 yards on 22 carries to go over the 2,000-yard plateau.
"Obviously Jeff's our feature back, the kid's got 2,000 yards," said Manion. "He's carried us all year."
Portageville had one golden chance to score before the half as they had 1st-and-goal at the 5-yard line. But Lutheran North's goal-line defense held firm to stop the Bulldogs on downs, ruining an 11-play, 62-yard drive.
"We've had trouble pretty much all year when we get in the red zone," said McKay. "And that happened to us tonight. It's been a problem and it came back to haunt us tonight too."
After holding Lutheran North to three-and-out on its first possession of the second half, the Bulldogs marched 71 yards on 14 plays to break the shutout.
On 4th-and-goal from the 6, Penn found Danny Scherer for a reception. Tyler Boatwright's extra point cut the lead to 13-
7 with 2:37 left in the third quarter.
Portageville never could get into the red zone the rest of the night. The Bulldogs did make things interesting as they had 1st-and-goal at the Lutheran North 39 with less than five minutes remaining.
But once again the Crusader defense tightened up and eventually held the Bulldogs on downs with 2:38 left.
The Crusaders were able to run most of the time off the clock while forcing the Bulldogs to use its timeouts before the fumble.
Lutheran North fumbled five times in the game, losing three.
"We just hurt ourselves -- we're lucky that we didn't severely hurt us," said Manion of the fumbles. "We're glad we got by and are able to go on. We won't be thumping our chests. We're just glad that we won."
Portageville was led by Antonio Scott's 66 yards on 18 carries. Aaron Bidewell ran for 23 yards, caught four passes for 40 yards and completed a pass for 37 yards.
The Bulldogs have made the state playoffs eight times in school history. Six of those times they have lost to private schools. Three times those schools went on to win state championships.
The Bulldogs will lose nine seniors to graduation.
"I'm tickled to death with the season we've had," said McKay. "Portageville kids play hard, they work hard and they've got a lot of pride. They may not be the fastest or anything, but toughness-wise and aggression, they'll match up with anybody. And size doesn't bother them."