PORTAGEVILLE - On a night in which two winless teams squared off looking for their first victory, the East Prairie Eagles found their hopes answered on the shoulders of running back M.C. Williams.
The Eagles got the lift they needed with Williams' 25 carries for 338 yards and five touchdowns as East Prairie edged out the Portageville Bulldogs 33-26 in what proved to be a gridiron classic all the way to the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
"I give a lot of credit to this Portageville team," said East Prairie head coach Gary Scott. "They came out ready to play and made us play our butts of until the very end. It was really a great game for both teams."
Portageville came out of the gates fired up with emotion as they were determined to give the home crowd their first win of the season on their homecoming night. Riding a wave of adrenaline, the Bulldogs wasted no time as they recovered the ball on a muffed kickoff return by the Eagles.
Capitalizing on the short field advantaged, the Bulldogs orchestrated a drive that was capped off by a 10-yard halfback pass at the 8:57 mark. D.J. Birdwell found himself alone in the end zone for six, compliments of a Mikey Johnson pass.
The Bulldogs took advantage of another Eagle mistake a short time later when Johnson picked off an East Prairie pass, running it all the way back for another score from 21 yards out. This gave Portageville a two touchdown led with 4:14 left in the first quarter.
"We started out fumbling on the opening kickoff return, then we turned around and threw an interception. Before we knew it, it was 14-0," said Scott.
"They were ready to play and we were just shell shocked right of the bat.
"However, I just told our kids, the game isn't won in the first quarter and you've got three more to play. I knew if we just kept playing things would be fine and our guys really responded well."
The Eagles wasted little time in the second quarter when Williams began to break loose. Following a Portageville three and out, Williams found the gaps as he rushed 65 yards for the score, cutting the lead to 14-7.
"We did a great job defensively early," said Portageville head coach Lee Wallace. "After we scored on the pick, East Prairie could have started saying, here we go again but you got to credit them. They battled well, got a quick score and realized they could score more so their confidence grew."
Portageville didn't hesitate to respond though after Johnson took the kick off return all the way to the East Prairie 15-yard line. This spark jump started another Bulldog drive that ended with T.J. Smith carrying the ball eight yards for the touchdown. This once again gave Portageville a two touchdown lead of 20-7 with 7:13 left to go in the half.
East Prairie narrowed the gap right before halftime with another Williams run from 26 yards out at the 2:40 mark. However, that would be all the Eagles would be able to get as they headed into the locker room down 20-14.
On their opening drive of the third quarter, Portageville saw a 48-yard touchdown run called back because of a holding penalty, giving Williams and the Eagles a chance to take the lead. Williams didn't disappoint, scoring on a 23-yard scramble at the 4:21 mark which tied the game 20-20.
"M.C. Williams is a tremendous back," said Wallace. "He did a great job cutting back on us tonight. You can't give him any room or he'll make you pay and he did just that when our defense broke down."
On the next Eagle drive, Williams scored again on a 57-yard run two plays after another run of the same distance was called back because of a penalty. Williams' fourth touchdown of the game gave East Prairie their first lead of the game at 27-20 with 1:03 left in the third, heading towards the final quarter.
"This was M.C.'s biggest game of the year," said Scott. "You have to give a lot of credit to him and our O-line. They did a great job creating holes, he ran the ball hard, and things just worked out for us tonight."
With minutes ticking away in the fourth quarter, Portageville began to work on their final touchdown drive of the night. Facing a third and long, Johnson aired the ball out looking to hook up with one of his wide outs who was deep, but the pass fell incomplete. However, the Bulldogs gained second life when the East Prairie safety was flagged for face guarding on the play. This set up a first and ten on the Eagle's 11-yard line. Portageville later cashed in their opportunity on a one yard touchdown run by Johnson with 3:11 left in the game.
After a long fought battle, Portageville made the decision to win or go home as they set up the offense for a two-point conversion. Johnson rolled out to his right and threw the ball across the field. With the ball up for grabs, the Bulldog receiver made a leaping attempt to haul in the pass but it went right off the end of his finger tips.
With time winding down, Portageville's comeback hopes began to dwindle as a victory seemed to come up one point shy 27-26.
"We were tired after that first half, emotionally we just gave a huge effort and jumped out to a lead," said Wallace. "We were worried about overtime and we were at our place, so we wanted to go for the win. We would do it again if we had the opportunity, it just didn't work out this time and it's unfortunate."
East Prairie tacked on another Williams touchdown from 55 yards out for insurance with 3:00 left in the game to give the Eagles a 33-26 led. This proved to be all they would need as they held on the their first win of the season.
"East Prairie is a lot like ourselves," said Wallace. "They came in in the same position we were in and we have to give them a big pat on the back. Congratulations to East Prairie.
"It felt good to be in a ball game and to get a chance to do some things. Offensively we've struggled all year so to be able to put some points on the board was very encouraging. I wanted to be in this game, make it competitive and it was.
"We still got some young people so we are just going to try to gain this experience and look towards the future."
District action will begin next weekend as East Prairie will look to ride their newly found wave of momentum into Charleston as they take on the Bluejays. For Portageville, the road doesn't get any easier as they will host the state-
ranked Hayti Indians. Kickoffs are launched at 7 p.m.