REEDSBURG — Usually to have success on the football field, you have to be able to finish inside the red zone.
The Portage football team had its fair share of struggles doing just that early in Friday’s Badger Small Conference game against Reedsburg.
But when it mattered most, the Warriors rose to the occasion. Portage scored twice deep inside the Beavers half in the fourth quarter, including a crucial fourth-down conversion, to earn a 27-14 win at Milennium Field in the teams’ 109th meeting all-time.
“It’s great, especially because it’s our last year here and they’re moving conferences next year. So to really come out and shut them out here is great,” said Portage senior Ethan Bleich, who scored the go-ahead touchdown.
“It comes down to trying to convert when you have those opportunities; that’s what you have to do to close out games, and that’s where we took a step forward tonight,” Portage coach Shane Haak said.
Portage (4-2, 2-2 Badger Small) made the most of its chances in the fourth quarter, scoring three times in the final 12 minutes to rally past the Beavers. The final blow didn’t come until the waning seconds, when the Warriors converted on a pivotal fourth-and-goal.
Nursing a 20-14 lead, the Warriors got backed up by a holding penalty, before working their way into a fourth-and-goal from the Beavers’ 7-yard line with 1:36 left to play. Rather than attempt a 24-yard field goal to extend the lead to nine, Portage opted to go for it, with junior Gavin Thompson hitting senior Jaden Kikkert on a 7-yard touchdown pass with 1:30 to play and a 27-14 lead after the extra point.
“Those are the things you have to take advantage of to close things out, because if you don’t and you leave a team hanging around there, you put yourself in position (to get beat),” Haak said.
Portage was then able to turn the Beavers over on downs before kneeling out the clock for their second straight win in the rivalry.
Reedsburg (1-5, 1-3) led 7-0 at halftime and later took a 14-6 lead on a 2-yard touchdown plunge by junior Kevin Green with just 44 seconds left in the third quarter. However, the Warriors immediately answered.
Portage marched down the field on a 7-play, 55-yard drive, scoring on a 9-yard Erik Brouette touchdown run with 9:25 left to pull within 14-12 following the failed two-point conversion. The Warriors’ defense then went to work as they forced a three-and-out on the ensuing Beavers’ drive.
While the Portage defense rose to the occasion down the stretch, Reedsburg didn’t help its cause.
“I felt really good about the offense the first half, going into the second half and just a lot of it was just our mistakes and shooting ourselves in the foot,” Reedsburg coach Calvin Zenz said. “They played hard, don’t get me wrong, but a lot of it is stuff that if we clean it up, and all 11 guys do what they’re supposed to, we can cruise along pretty good.”
The Warriors instead shifted into high gear as they scored again to take the lead on a 2-yard Bleich touchdown dive with 6:33 to play. The bruising running back added the two-point try for a 20-14 lead. It was a no-brainer for Haak to turn to Bleich, who scored the game-winning TD in last year’s 13-7 overtime win, in that situation.
“He’s a tremendous leader and we trust him, just like we trust many of our other backs too. But in those short-yardage situations, with the size and strength he has, he’s a good one to go to,” Haak said.
Looking to counter right back, the Beavers got a big 29-yard run from Green on the first play of their ensuing drive. However, the Warriors stuffed junior Devin Judd for a three-yard loss on the next play and, after two incomplete passes, Green was ripped down for a 9-yard sack by Portage senior Jordan Starr to turn the Beavers over on downs and set up the game-sealing touchdown.
“We thought it would be there, but we missed a block and that’s basically why (it happened),” Zenz said of the three-yard loss that stunted the drive. “If we get that block, who knows what would’ve happened and that’s kind of how it kind of goes right now. Sometimes we get about 10 guys doing the right thing, and that was a huge momentum thing, especially for our guys still learning things.”
With the win, Portage keeps its playoff hopes very much alive with a Homecoming game against rival Sauk Prairie next on the docket. And coming off a thrilling come-from-behind win, the objective is easy for the Warriors.
“It’d be great to make it there (the playoffs) and all we have to do is go week-by-week, work hard and see how it goes,” Bleich said.
As for the Beavers, another rivalry tilt next week against Baraboo is on tap. The Old River Jug will once again be on the line, and for Zenz, the key to bringing that home is simple: execute.
“Things are still new and there’s times when we execute and things look nice, but it’s all about execution… and really it’s that simple,” he said.