PORTAL — It wasn’t Friday, it wasn’t nighttime and there were no lights, but the Portal football team was still in action as it kicked off against Savannah Christian at 11 a.m. in the latest area game to be rescheduled due to the ongoing effects of Hurricane Matthew.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, the unorthodox starting time didn’t do much to change their fortunes for the season. Portal hung close to the Raiders early on, but faded down the stretch, falling by a count of 34-12 at the Portal Athletic Complex.
William Griffin spent his Saturday morning and early afternoon running wild through the Portal defense. Griffin scored a pair of touchdowns and racked up 173 rushing yards while A.J. Davis - the workhorse fullback in the Raiders’ option offense — also topped the century mark on the ground with 110 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries.
Portal’s biggest shortcoming on the day was its inability to get the Raiders off the field. Savannah Christian converted all four of the third downs it faced on the game’s first drive, leading to a 12-play touchdown drive.
That trend continued throughout the day as the Raiders ran 54 plays to Portal’s 27.
“That’s what Savannah Christian likes to do,” Portal coach Matt Smith said. “The run the clock and really grind on you. We fought hard, but wore down a little bit and didn’t make enough plays to get (our defense) off the field.”
It was a battle of big plays early on.
Trailing 7-0 after Savannah Christian (6-2, 3-1 Region 3-A) punched it in on its first possession, the Panthers (0-8, 0-4) needed just one play to answer. Craig Ware took an inside handoff and hit a hole at the line of scrimmage. The speedy Ware flashed through the SCPS backfield and outran the safeties for a 62-yard touchdown, but the Raiders were able to block the PAT to maintain a 7-6 advantage.
Portal looked to pull ahead when it recovered a Savannah Christian fumble on the Raiders’ next drive, but the Panthers fumbled it right back two plays later. Two plays after that, Griffin took a pitch and turned the corner on the right side, going untouched for a 44-yard touchdown.
Another fumbled snap for the Panthers almost allowed disaster to strike - instead, it was Ware who notched another blow.
Ware picked up the loose ball and - with many SCPS defenders out of position due to chasing the fumble - shook off two tackles and again found open space, this time going 54 yards to the end zone. Portal attempted a two-point conversion for the tie, but an incomplete pass kept the score at 14-12.
“Craig is a very talented runner,” Smith said. “We have a few guys who can run the ball and who can make things happen. Our problem is with consistency in being able to open up holes and to execute our plays better.”
After Ware’s second big play, the Raider defense locked down while the offense continued to go to work.
Griffin ripped off two more big runs - the second going for a 32-yard touchdown in the opening minute of the second quarter. The teams traded ineffective possessions throughout the rest of the period before Savannah Christian mounted a late touchdown drive that was capped off by a 5-yard bruising run by Davis to make it a 28-12 halftime advantage.
Portal’s defense dug deep in the second half, but each stop of the Savannah Christian offense was met with an almost-immediate three-and-out by the Panther offense. When Davis found the end zone on a 6-yard run with 7:57 to go in the game, Portal - which wasn’t credited with first downs on its two long touchdown runs - still hadn’t moved the chains a single time in the game.
The Panthers finally found a spark on their last drive of the day. Ryan Ware ripped off a 20-yard run and a pair of pass interference calls against SCPS moved the Panthers inside the red zone. Portal advances as far as the 5 before being stopped on downs, allowing the Raiders to run off the final seconds for the win.
For Portal, Saturday’s game marked the end of a hectic and brutal stretch of the schedule.
“That’s the third top-10 type of team we’ve played in 11 days,” Smith said. “It’s been tough. We’ve got a smaller roster where we’re asking freshmen to step up and play a lot. We’re trying to build this team up, and to play so many games and have our practice schedule messed with so much is pretty tough on us.”
The Panthers have never suffered a winless season in their previous 40 seasons of football. They’ll have one final chance to keep that streak alive on Friday when they travel to Claxton, which will also be looking for its first win of the 2016 campaign.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.