PORTAGE — Fireworks went off as the marching band played at halftime of the Portage football team’s Homecoming game against Sauk Prairie on Friday night at Bob Mael Field, a colorful display of pyrotechnics and music to be sure.
How the Warriors took care of business was a lot less of a show. It was straight and to the point — not much nonsense.
Buoyed by its defense and an opportunistic ground game, the Warriors methodically edged the Eagles, snapping a two-game skid with a 26-16 victory.
Ethan Bleich was the bell cow.
“He’s a physical player. One of the leaders of our program and team, and he runs the ball hard — he gives great effort play in, play out,” Portage coach Shane Haak said of the 5-foot-11, 180-pound junior, who trucked his way to 161 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 26 carries. “It was just great effort on his part. He was able to break some tackles and obviously he was a big part of what we did tonight.”
Bleich did his most damage when the Warriors (2-2) needed it most.
After Sauk Prairie (0-4) had trimmed Portage’s lead to 12-8 on Tyler Uselman’s 15-yard TD burst to the right pilon with 3 minutes, 3 seconds left in the first half, Bleich and the Warriors’ offensive line had the answer.
Bleich ripped off a 52-yard run up the left sideline on the first play of the drive then gained chunks of 10, five and three on the next three plays to set up Jordan Starr’s 2-yard TD run straight up the middle, giving the Warriors an 18-8 advantage.
Sauk Prairie marched into Portage territory on the ensuing drive, but the drive stalled out and the Warriors forced a turnover on downs at the 38-yard-line with 19 seconds to go.
Then with the ball first to start the second half, the Warriors delivered what amounted to the knockout punch, going 70 yards in nine plays — they got the benefit of a 15-yard personal foul tacked on to the end of one of the plays — and making it 24-8 on Bleich’s 3-yard run off left guard with 3:41 gone by in the half. Starr ran in the two-point conversion to make it 26-8.
“That was a big drive for us coming out in the second half, obviously, to set the tone right away,” Haak said. “We had some opportunities and we took advantage of them a little bit more tonight.”
Bleich’s TD plunge came after he marched his team to the doorstep of paydirt with runs of 29, 8 and 3 yards.
He had help, of course.
“Our O-line was huge tonight,” said Haak, who relied heavily on the left side of that line to move the chains. “Nothing happens without them and I thought they did a great job.
“They also handled some adversity well. There were some things up front, some plays that didn’t go our way, but they were able to come back on the next play and execute up front. That was an improvement this week.”
Added Sauk Prairie coach Clay Iverson of the three drives — the two TD possessions for Portage and the turnover on downs by his team — that bridged the first and second halves, “A lot of football is how you end halves and how you start halves.
“I give Portage credit, they played very hard. I thought our guys played really hard. I thought the game came down to about four or five football plays — not series — that they made. I’ve got to coach our guys to hopefully make them next time.”
Sauk Prairie did trim its deficit to 26-16 on Uselman’s 5-yard run to the right on third-and-goal with 6:38 remaining. But after forcing the Warriors to go three-and-out on the ensuing possession, Ian Carpelenia’s interception on a pass deep downfield effectively snuffed out the Eagles’ comeback hopes.
Portage, which finished with 180 total rushing yards (only 19 of which were tallied by runners not named Bleich), held Sauk Prairie to only 86 yards on the ground. And while the Warriors did give up 130 yards through the air, most of them were fruitless where the scoreboard was concerned.
“We were physical and I thought we took a step forward. And I’ve got to be honest, I thought they were physical as well — it was a physical football game. But overall, we were able to put four quarters together more consistently tonight. And that’s where we took a step in the right direction,” Haak said.
“If we can have a team like Portage, who I think plays very physical, say that that was a physical football game,” Iverson said when relayed that comment, “then I think we’re going in the right direction.
“You’re always judged by the scoreboard. But we want our kids to play hard and they played hard today. We’re upset that we didn’t win, but we’re going to keep our heads up because we played as hard as we could. That’s how we do things here.”
Follow Dan on Twitter @Danny_Larson_8 or contact him at 920-356-6753.
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