PORTAGEVILLE -- Portageville jumped into the driver's seat of 2A District 1 Friday night, defeating Malden 20-0 in a game expected to decide the district crown.
The Bulldogs took advantage of an outstanding defensive effort, three crucial Malden fumbles, and a huge 72-yard punt return to pull out the win.
All the Bulldogs have to do now is beat struggling Caruthersville next Friday to win it outright.
"This is a real good group of kids," said Portageville head coach Jim McKay. "A lot of their daddies and brothers played for me. They've always had real good work ethics, and they've always been tough kids."
The toughest kid of the night was Dantwan Chillers, who gained 83 yards on 22 carries against Malden's bigger and stronger line. The 5-foot-11 senior has run for 934 yards in eight games.
"He was taking some hard licks tonight," said McKay. "(Malden) had some really big people in there. One of their tackles is over 300 pounds, and some of them are 240. Chillers is 160 at the most. He took some hits, but he kept coming back and doing everything I ask him to do."
Malden, the defending champions of the district, didn't go down without a fight. The Green Wave held Portageville to its second lowest output of the season, allowing just 220 yards offense to a team that is averaging 33.1 points per game.
"We mixed up a lot of different fronts and different coverages," said Malden coach Kevin Collier. "We scouted them hard and tried to play their tendencies, and our kids played hard. We gave up a couple of passes, but our defense played well. They've played well all year."
Malden's defense ended the second quarter with a goal line stand, and trailed just 8-0 at halftime.
"I knew Malden was going to be tough," said McKay. "They're big, they've got speed, and their quarterback can throw. On defense, they put 11 people up there within five yards of the ball."
Portageville's defense was as solid as ever, limiting Malden's stable of running backs to just 71 yards. Mario Payne led the charge with 36 yards on nine carries. The Bulldogs have given up just 62 points this season.
"Give them some credit, they play pretty good defense," said Collier. "They're giving up eight points a game on average, and they do the job well. They took some things away from us."
The Green Wave also hurt themselves with nine fumbles, losing three of them.
"Those hurt us," said Collier. "We never were able to put together a drive. In the first half, it was because of penalties. In the second half, it was turnovers."
Portageville's most impressive drive of the night came on its second possession of the game. The Bulldogs took advantage of excellent field possession, starting on the Malden 43. After seven plays, fullback Paul Recker found paydirt from seven yards out.
Quarterback Lance Penn ran in the two-point conversion, giving Portageville an 8-0 lead.
Portageville's second touchdown in the game came at the end of the third quarter. Chillers fielded a Brad Ealey punt, then reversed it to Kyle Ezell, who took it 72 yards for a score.
The extra-point run failed, giving the Bulldogs a 14-0 advantage.
"We practice that every day," said McKay. "I told the guys if we could field the punt cleanly, (Ezell) was going to get there. Usually we rush to block it. We put this return in two weeks ago, and this was the first time we've had a chance to run it in a game. We knew it was going to work."
Ezell returned two kicks for a total of 109 yards in the game.
With two minutes left regulation, McKay caught Malden's secondary napping, calling a pass play to tight end Mark Mudd that resulted in a 30-yard touchdown.
"I caught them," said McKay. "They were playing strictly run, so I asked (Mudd) if he could get open. He told me he could, and I told him that he would score if he just caught it."
The Green Wave turned the ball over on downs on the ensuing possession, and Portageville ran out the clock to preserve the 20-0 victory.
"Gosnell beat us in our first game, and the kids hung their heads," said McKay. "I told them we would get our share if they just kept their heads up and kept working hard. After we got a win or two, the kids started to realize that we can win."
Portageville (6-2) will host Caruthersville on Friday while Malden (3-6) travels to East Prairie.
"The kids have fought hard all year long and they have improved," said Collier. "We're a lot better at this point than we were early in the season. We made some mistakes that cost us dearly. As a result, the score for us was unfortunate."