Fortunately for the Portsmouth Warriors, there wasn’t much drama in their rubber match with the West Virginia Lightning.
After a thrilling 41-35 overtime victory over the Lightning in May and a last-second 23-21 loss in July, many expected the Saturday’s Blue Collar Football League (BCFL) Conference Final game to come down to the wire. But on Saturday, the Warrior defense had other ideas, propelling Portsmouth to a 23-6 win over the Lightning at Spartan Municipal Stadium.
The win clinched a third-straight championship game appearance for the Warriors, and their first in as many tries in the BCFL.
“It was an impressive game. Might have been the best defensive game we’ve ever played,” Warrior head coach Jamie Rice said.
The Warrior defense gave the Lightning fits all game long, limiting West Virginia to just 145 yards of total offense throughout the game. According to Rice, over 80 percent of those yards came on just two drives.
More importantly, the Warriors limited the Lightning’s lauded rushing attack to just six yards on nine attempts throughout the game.
The Warrior defensive attack began with the secondary. Defensive backs Snook Martin, Chance Freeman and Mason Jordan combined to record 18 tackles a sack, an interception and eight defended passes.
“Our defensive backs played incredible. That allowed us to do some things up front and bring a lot of pressure,” Rice said.
The Warrior defensive backs even looked good when they gave up their only touchdown of the night.
Midway through the second quarter, Lightning quarterback Chuckie Erby launched a jump ball into the end zone. Though Martin was able to get his arms on the football, Lightning receiver Deyartis Dudley also got a piece of the pigskin. As the two players went to the ground, the referee ruled a tie and awarded Dudley the catch and a Lightning touchdown. With nine minutes remaining in the half, the Lightning held a 6-0 lead.
But that’s the only offense the Lightning would manage throughout the day. From there, the Warriors stacked the box against the Lightning rushing attack, and the defensive backfield shut down West Virginia’s speedy receivers.
As the second quarter progressed, the Warrior offense slowly but surely worked themselves back into the game. Using a three-back “T” formation, Portsmouth finally broke through just before halftime when veteran running back Jordan Schankwiler found the end zone on a 30-yard rushing touchdown. After the defense quickly forced yet another three-and-out, the Warriors got the ball back with a chance to take the lead with the ball on their own 40 and 80 seconds remaining in the half.
“I told them if we picked up 15 or 20 yards, we were going to go after it,” Rice said.
After a big run and some clutch catches, the Warriors found themselves in range for kicker Mark Dheel. He responded, booting a 29-yard field goal with six seconds left in the half to give the Warriors a 9-6 lead.
“That was big. Even if it’s just three points, you’re up,” Rice said. “It changed that momentum so much. That might have been the biggest play for us.”
Inspired by their successful two-minute drill, the Warriors added to their lead in the third with a 47-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Justin Lunsford to receiver Santonio Wilson. Noticing that the Lightning were stacking the box to shore up their porous run defense, the Warrior coaching staff signaled an audible from the sideline to set up the score.
Lunsford finished the day with seven completions for 143 yards, while Wilson led Warrior receivers with two catches for 58 yards.
Though the Warriors held a two-possession lead, the Lightning had their chances to climb back in the game. However, at every turn, the defense came up with a big stop to keep Portsmouth on top.
As the game progressed, the Warrior offense looked for every opportunity to keep the clock moving. But with just over two minutes remaining, running back Jontez Jones did much more than milk the clock. His 60-yard touchdown run effectively put the game out of reach and gave Portsmouth its third straight conference championship.
“The Lightning are a rival. We’re pretty familiar with each other,” Rice said. “It’s a pretty sweet victory.”
Jones finished the night as the game’s leading rusher, totaling 153 yards on 17 carries.
With the win, the Warriors advance to face the Butler County Broncos in the BCFL Championship Game next Saturday. Earlier this season, the Warriors defeated the Broncos 41-20 at Spartan Stadium.
Despite playing in the finals in each of the last two seasons, the Warriors are still seeking their first league title. In both years, the Warriors fell to the Cincinnati Hawks in the Northern Frontier Football League championship game, losing 36-28 in 2013 and 34-23 last season.
However, Portsmouth will have the advantage of playing this season’s championship game at home. Though Notre Dame High School will be using Spartan Stadium on Saturday evening, the Warriors are hoping to host the BCFL Championship at either Portsmouth High School’s Trojan Coliseum or The Complex in West Portsmouth.
“That’s pretty sweet, to be in front of your fans and host a championship game. That’s pretty special,” Rice said.
The winner of Saturday’s game is likely to receive a Semi-Pro Bowl invite, a game which would take place over the winter months. Kickoff for Saturday’s championship game is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
Reach Alex Hider at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter