PORTAGE — After Friday night’s game, Blairsville junior quarterback Scott Thompson was frustrated, muddy and bleeding — which pretty much sums up the conclusion of the Bobcats’ 2013 campaign.
Blairsville turned the ball over on two of its first three possessions and never recovered in a 49-14 loss to the top-seeded Mustangs in the quarterfinal round of the District 6 Class A football playoffs at Portage Stadium.
It was the second time in three weeks that the eighth-seeded Bobcats faced the Mustangs, and the outcome was the same. Portage won the Week 9 matchup 38-6 in a non-conference game in Blairsville.
“We were a lot more confident this week than we were the first time we played them,” Thompson said. “But it didn’t seem to matter. We came in two weeks ago, blind, but we knew they were a good team. We changed a lot from then, but it just didn’t pay off.”
Portage outgained the Bobcats 451-194 and doubled them up in first downs. Blairsville cut the lead to 21-7 at one point in the second quarter, but lost any momentum by giving up a big touchdown drive at the end of the half.
The defeat was an unpleasant ending to an up-and-down season for the Bobcats, who finished with a 6-5 record. Blairsville, under first-year coach Rick Artley, overcame a pile of injuries throughout the season and squeezed into the playoffs after a 40-19 win over Moshannon Valley last week. The Bobcats had some good wins and some ugly losses, but their playoff hopes took a hit in their first meeting with Portage, which racked up 315 rushing yards Friday night.
“They have a lot of keys,” Artley said. “They tell you where the ball’s going, but you have to be able to stop it. And we couldn’t stop it again tonight.
“They run the ball with their motion and with pulling their guards. They take you to the football with their movement. We knew where they were going, but they were good enough to dominate us on the line of scrimmage — in the second half especially. In the first half, we kind of hung around.”
Caleb Kephart led Portage with 174 yards on 15 carries and scored three touchdowns. Blairs-ville running back Deion Robinson had 40 yards on 11 attempts.
The Bobcats let the Mustangs drive 58 yards on the opening drive but forced them to turn the ball over on downs at the 7-yard line. But two plays later, Thompson fumbled at the 12-yard line, and Kephart scooped up the ball and took off for the end zone. He bobbled it at the goal line and grabbed it again to give the Mustangs an early lead.
“This is the second time in three weeks, and it’s basically the same game played out,” Artley said. “I thought we did a much better job defensively against the run early, we just had some letdowns and missed opportunities. We couldn’t capitalize, and the turnovers killed us.”
On their next possession, the Mustangs, who had no penalties and no turnovers, went 73 yards and scored on Scott Giles’ 3-yard run to go up 14-0.
Similar to their previous game against Portage, the Bobcats had no problem moving the ball — they just couldn’t finish the job. They bounced back with a solid drive, but Thompson was picked off in the end zone by Luke Dividock. The turnover led to a 1-yard touchdown by Mustangs quarterback Michael Bryja that gave them a 21-0 lead.
“There was some uncontrollable blitzes, and just some things on offense we couldn’t pick up for some reason,” said Thompson, who finished with minus-25 rushing yards due to a few big sacks. “They just saw what we did and picked up on it, and we couldn’t stop them on either side of the ball.”
Thompson capped a 56-yard, five-play drive with a 1-yard run to put the Bobcats on the board with 30 seconds left in the first half. Then, instead of taking a knee with 26.8 seconds to go, Portage strung together three straight pass plays that spanned 64 yards in just 22 seconds for a score. Bryja connected with C.W. Miller on all three, the last a 14-yard touchdown that gave Portage a 28-7 lead heading into the break. Bryja finished 6 of 9 for 136 yards.
“That was really big for us,” Portage coach Gary Gouse said. “Michael said, ‘Let’s do it, Coach’ and I agreed. Then bam, bam, bam, he went to work with it. I was really proud of how he handled that stretch there.”
“Well, we had it to 21-7, and then we gave up a couple passes and they’re in the end zone in 30 seconds,” Artley said. “You think in 30 seconds that you have a chance to hold on. They did a great job. We didn’t cover that great. He is a good quarterback, and he throws a nice ball and that’s what made us pay more in the first half than anything. It wasn’t really the run game. The second half run totals were obviously blown up, but the first half was mostly passing.”
The Mustangs forced a three-and-out to start the second half and then scored on a 59-yard run by Kephart on their first play from scrimmage.
“When we didn’t score on that first drive in the second half, and they came out on the first play and scored, you see that a lot of times,” Artley said. “That the steam roller starts and doesn’t stop, and that’s exactly what happened there.”
Blairsville wasn’t giving up that easily, though, and Thompson returned the ensuing kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown to give the Bobcats some life.
But that spark soon went out, and Kephart tacked on another touchdown five plays later. Chris Onder added a 9-yard score with 4:03 left in the third quarter to put the mercy rule into effect.
“They made some nice adjustments since the last time, and we did a couple of things,” Gouse said. “Our kids played hard. In the playoffs, everyone’s going to play their guts out. My hat’s off to them for battling. Our kids played really, really well.”
The Mustangs (9-1) advanced and will face the winner of tonight’s Penns Manor-Bishop Guilfoyle game in the district semifinals next week.
“I know BG is the heavy favorite, but we’ll see what happens,” Gouse said. “I also know Penns Manor has a big front line, so you never know.”
Blairsville is done until next year, but despite the harsh, disappointing end to its season, Thompson kept a level head, tried to smile and said: “It stinks, but these things just happen, I guess.”