PORTSMOUTH — Indeed, it’s not always often when one gets a second chance.
For the Portsmouth Trojans, they are getting a second opportunity at undefeated Ironton — for a second consecutive season.
And actually, in figuring it all out, it’s the fifth time the proud Trojans try and topple the talented and highly-touted Fighting Tigers — in the past 26 months and one full week.
That’s because, on Friday night, Portsmouth plays Ironton once again —for the two are meeting for the fourth time in only two full calendar years, and for the second straight season just two weeks apart after their regular-season finale.
The ninth-seeded Trojans try yet again for the upset of the host and top-seeded Fighting Tigers —as 7-4 Portsmouth and 11-0 Ironton renew the state’s second oldest all-time football rivalry, with yet another Division V Region 19 quarterfinal tilt.
Like last season’s quarterfinal, this one too takes place inside Ironton’s historic Tanks Memorial Stadium —as kickoff for Friday night is set for 7 p.m.
The matchup marks the 132nd time, including the state playoffs, the two Ohio River rivals have squared off —as Ironton owns, only by four wins including in the regular season and again in the Region 19 quarterfinals last year —a slim 64-60-7 advantage in the all-time series.
The long-running series started first in 1902, and many of the meetings have been epic —although the Fighting Tigers have won five consecutive, including a hard-fought 17-6 Region 19 quarterfinal a year ago.
It’s actually believed, by some observers and historians, to be the third longest-running series in the state —with Troy and Piqua and Massillon Washington and Canton McKinley being the oldest pair.
Portsmouth last won four years ago in head coach Bruce Kalb’s first season, as the Trojans — trailing 21-0 at halftime — truly reversed course, and erupted for five unanswered second-half touchdowns en route to that memorable 35-28 final.
But that was then, and this is now, and Ironton is outright Ohio Valley Conference champion four years in a row —the past two dominating the Trojans in the final 24-plus minutes, en route to pulling away in the de facto championship games.
However, Portsmouth proved just two weeks ago, inside Trojan Coliseum, that it can in fact hang with the Fighting Tigers —so as long as the Trojans execute.
Kalb, in an interview on Tuesday with The Portsmouth Daily Times, re-affirmed his belief in that.
“I feel like we played pretty darn good football against them two weeks ago for 46 minutes. Unfortunately, it was that final two minutes of the first half that we allowed them to score two touchdowns on a strange turn of events,” recalled Kalb. “It’s 14-0 and we’re driving to the red zone, but we get off-schedule and shoot ourselves in the foot. Two minutes later, it’s 28-0 going into half.”
The final was 42-7 in favor of the Fighting Tigers, but Kalb correctly highlighted a disastrous final two first-half minutes.
The Trojans trailed 14-0, but drove 11 plays between the 20-yard lines —all the way to the Fighting Tigers’ 19.
However, a fourth-down play resulted in PHS senior quarterback Tyler Duncan getting sacked and fumbling —resulting in a 41-yard loss and the Fighting Tigers taking over at the Portsmouth 34, a massive flip of the field for one snap of the ball.
With a minute-and-a-half remaining, Ironton quarterback Tayden Carpenter completed a 23-yard touchdown toss to Ty Perkins —but the Trojans’ troubles didn’t stop there.
They tried a hurry-up offense in the final 90 seconds, but C.J. Martin intercepted Duncan at the Portsmouth 33.
Carpenter completed six straight passes in response —the final of which was an 11-yarder with only 14 seconds remaining, but which made it 28-0 in a matter of two minutes.
“When you’re playing a team of this caliber that has that many playmakers, you have to play as mistake-free as possible. It’s that simple. That didn’t happen that night,” said Kalb. “We gave them a short field all night. They had four drives of 40 yards or less. We started most of our drives inside the 20. You can’t do that against a good team.”
That much is true, as Carpenter completed 12-of-17 passes for 189 yards and six touchdowns —with the six-foot and four-inch Perkins standing out at 98 receiving yards and two TDs on five receptions.
The key was keeping away the football from Ironton’s offense, and eliminating Ironton’s opportunities at explosive plays on either side — which will need to happen again in order for the Trojans to be successful, and ultimately triumph.
“We were able to move the ball, we had more first downs, and ran 60-some offensive plays. We played a good game statistically, but unfortunately on the scoreboard, it didn’t translate. As we prepare for this week, and we can’t deny the playmakers they have, but let’s finish our drives and cut out those mistakes,” said Kalb. “See if we can give ourselves a chance.”
Portsmouth’s puncher’s chance also depends on containing Perkins, a probable candidate for Southeast District Division V Offensive Player of the Year.
The standout wideout is already verbally committed to the University of Cincinnati — and is only adding on in recent weeks to stuffed stat sheets of catches, yards, yards per catch and touchdowns.
“Ty Perkins makes awesome catches against even outstanding coverage. Whether it’s bracket him a little bit, give some help to our guys over top or put someone in his face, there are different things you can do to defend him. But at the same time, if you take too many people out of the box…it’s pick your poison,” said Kalb. “We’ve got adjustments we’ve made, but it comes down to execution. We have to cut out the mistakes. That was a big problem the first time around. It’s 14-0 and we’re driving. If we punch that one in there, we go in at halftime down 14-7 and getting the ball back to start the second half. Very, very different ballgame, but that didn’t happen.”
The Trojans amounted 35-plus minutes in time of possession, and limited Ironton to only 18 carries and 111 rushing yards, but two turnovers and seven penalties did damage.
“We need to make sure that we aren’t our own worst enemy against Ironton,” continued Kalb. “Don’t get behind the chains with penalties, don’t turn the ball over, don’t get off schedule, don’t give them short fields on kickoffs or punts, don’t put ourselves in poor field position with penalties on special teams. We managed to have some long sustained drives in that first game. We need to make sure we finish those long sustained drives.”
Speaking of long drives, the Trojans don’t have that this week —unlike last Friday, when they took a three-hour and 15-minute charter bus ride to Belmont County.
They played the eighth-seeded Union Local Jets on their natural grass home field, but came away with a well-earned 28-26 triumph —scoring on a Reade Pendleton fumble recovery return on the game’s opening play, returning a kickoff for a touchdown, and two Duncan touchdown passes covering 32 (to Nolan Heiland) and 40 yards (Beau Hammond).
They also got the defensive stop on a would-be game-tying fourth-quarter two-point conversion attempt, and made another defensive stand late in the game to clinch the win.
It was Portsmouth’s second consecutive playoff victory —and the first back-to-back campaigns with playoff wins since 2001 and 2002.
Last season was the first for the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s expanded playoffs to 16 teams per region —so the Trojans repeated as winners being nine-seeds, winning at Zane Trace 38-22 in that opening round.
“Our kids dug deep once again in a close game. One thing I am very proud of this group is that it competes. And when it needs to make big plays, we find ways to do so,” said Kalb. “Very proud of what this team has accomplished, and we’re not done yet.”
And now, they get another opportunity at archrival Ironton.
“One thing I know. These young men will go out on there on Friday night and give us everything they have,” said Kalb. “At the end of the day, just see where the chips fall.”