BLAIRSVILLE — The Blairsville Bobcats’ chance to control their destiny slipped right through their fingers. Truth be told, they never had a grip on it.
Blairsville’s playoff hopes took a big hit Friday with a 38-6 loss to Portage in a non-conference football game at Memorial Stadium, leaving the Bobcats in need of help elsewhere in order to make the District 6 playoffs.
But first things first: The Bobcats have to win their regular-season finale next week before they start scoreboard-watching. Blairsville will visit Moshannon Valley in what will be a must-win game.
“But Mo Valley is not going to be any cakewalk either, and if we don’t come better prepared and ready to play, I don’t know if that’s going to be accomplished either,” Blairsville coach Rick Artley said. “We had it in our grasp. Our destiny, we had it and we didn’t take care of it, so now we’ve got to hope for some help. But credit Portage. They just dominated us on the line of scrimmage.”
Moving the ball wasn’t a problem for Blairsville against the Mustangs. Everything else was — finishing drives, holding onto the ball was, scoring touchdowns. And it all added up to a frustrating night that started unraveling early.
Blairsville pieced together a 14-play opening drive that took half of the first quarter and had the Bobcats inside the Mustangs’ 10-yard line. But they couldn’t score on four tries from the 9-yard line and turned the ball over on downs.
Portage (7-1) then scored on its first three possessions to take a 21-0 lead with 2:28 to play in the second quarter, and the Mustangs never looked back.
“Sometimes you make a few of those plays early on in the game and the whole aspect of the game changes,” Artley said. “When they held us out of the end zone that first drive, that was big.”
“We came with a purpose to play,” Portage coach Gary Gouse said. “We’ve been doing that for the past couple weeks. We’ve got some really good momentum, and we’re on a good roll right now. … We did a lot of good things.”
One of them was breaking tackles.
Few missed tackles hurt the Bobcats more than when Portage’s Caleb Kephart went for an 8-yard gain on a fourth-and-6 at the Blairsville 17-yard line early in the second quarter. Two plays later, the Mustangs scored and took a 14-0 lead.
“I still believe the play of the game was the fourth-and-8 early,” Artley said. “They run just a simple sweep, and Kephart is a great running back, but we made contact probably within 1 yard of the line of scrimmage, and he drove us for 8 to get the first down. And once that went 14-0, it was all downhill from there.”
Blairsville (5-4) briefly gained some momentum and seemed to get back in the game late in the first half when Scott Thompson connected with Colton McMillan for a 9-yard touchdown pass to make it 21-6 with 1:10 left in the second quarter.
But the high didn’t last long.
Kephart raced for a 72-yard return on the ensuing kickoff, and the Mustangs got the ball at the Blairsville 10-yard line with just under a minute remaining in the half. Two plays later, the Mustangs did what the Bobcats couldn’t — punch it in from close range — to restore their three-touchdown lead a mere 25 seconds after Blairsville thought it got back in the game.
“That was really big,” Gouse said. “No. 23 (Kephart) is a pretty special player for us. He does a lot of things on his own that most kids can’t.”
Blairsville gained 317 total yards and kept the chains moving all night, but the Bobcats couldn’t get it done when it mattered. They had three possessions on which they covered 48 yards or more, yet all three ended without points. Two of those drives stalled inside Portage’s 10-yard line, and they also missed a field goal attempt to end another possession.
“The first half we took care of the ball, but we couldn’t punch it in,” Artley said. “The second half, we were moving the ball and then we turned it over. When that happens, you’re going to be on the wrong end of a pretty lopsided score like we were.”
“They had chances, and we rose to the occasion and stopped their chances,” Gouse said. “They probably had two or three times they were marching the ball and had a chance to score and our defense came up big.”
Portage added 10 points in the third quarter to pull away for its second straight blowout of the Bobcats. Portage won last year’s meeting 41-24.
Scott Thompson completed 12 of 29 pass attempts for 148 yards with two interceptions. The Bobcats fumbled twice and finished with four turnovers.
Thompson was also Blairsville’s leading rusher with 84 of the team’s 159 rushing yards.
Kephart ran for 138 yards and a pair of touchdowns for Portage, which totaled 241 rushing yards.
Joe Randazzo scored two short rushing touchdowns for the Mustangs, and C.W. Miller hauled in a 19-yard touchdown reception from Michael Bryja.
Blairsville was ranked ninth in this week’s District 6 Class A rankings, one spot out of the playoff field. Eighth-ranked Williamsburg lost Friday, and the Bobcats missed a chance to leapfrog the team ahead of them.
The Bobcats know they’ll need a lot of help, but all they can do is take care of their business, something they didn’t do Friday.
“Offensively, we were able to spread them out enough that we were moving the ball,” Artley said, “but once they got to crunch time, we couldn’t get into the end zone.”