By JOHN BLACK
HOUSTON (Sp) - Well, it was a great ride while it lasted. But in the end here in spacious Reliant Stadium Saturday afternoon, the La Porte Bulldogs simply could not find the firepower needed to do something that isn't easy to begin with - beat a good team twice in the same season.
As a result, the Bulldogs lost, 34-6, to the Port Arthur Memorial Titans and have thus been eliminated from the Class 5A, Division II playoffs. But they exit post-season play with their heads held high, sporting an excellent 12-2 record and the first-ever national ranking in school history.
The Bulldogs, under the direction of head coach Jeff LaReau, were listed as the No. 11 team in the nation by USA Today this past week. And they had their chances early against the Titans but could not capitalize. Memorial started taking control in the third period, getting La Porte out of its natural rhythm by scoring 21 unanswered points.
So the Titans, the No. 2 team out of District 21-5A behind the league champion Bulldogs, move on to the state semifinals, finally able to beat a La Porte team after seasons of failure agaainst the Bulldogs both in the regular season and in post-season play. And La Porte takes no small comfort in the fact that the 2011 football season produced: an outright district championship; a win over Deer Park; a win over North Shore; and three playoff victories - the icing on the cake being a big victory over the mighty Katy Tigers.
And getting to play at Reliant Stadium in front of thousands of boisterous Bulldog backers in the Region III Finals wasn't bad, either.
Once again, the Bulldogs were locked in a defensive struggle, and the big difference in the first half was the ability of the Titans to get a touchdown to go with their one field goal, while the Dogs could not get into the end zone and had to settle for two Eric Medina field goals.
Memorial started the game with a breeze, moving swiftly and easily to that aforementioned TD. Malik Graves had a big hit for La Porte to break up a pass on the first offensive play of the game, and Chad Sutherland made a fine open-field tackle for a loss of one to set up third and 11. But the Titans hit a bomb up the middle, all the way to the La Porte 22 - 55 yards in all.
On first down from there the Titans tried another pass and it was very nearly intercepted. And that was big because on the next play Memorial ran a delayed trap up the middle and hit it all the way into the end zone. The kick made it 7-0 Memorial with 10:52 left in the first period.
La Porte then went three-and-out on its first offensive possession, but the Bulldog defense held the Titans to a three-and-out as well - thanks in no small part to a halfback pass to a wide open receiver that was barely off the mark. The Bulldogs took the ensuing punt at their own 17.
Keith Whitely got nine yards, then added six for the first down. Keith then ran for seven yards before adding six more and another first down. Moments later quarterback Josh Vidales ran for what would have been a first down but the Dogs were flagged for holding so bring it back, and when a short pass from Vidales to Jahvey Mark was not good enough for the first down, let's punt it again.
The La Porte defense was once again up to the task as Tyrone Graves and Sutherland combined for a tackle; a big rush forced a bad pass; and a quarterback scramble got only a couple of yards. The Dogs were fortunate on that last play as one ref called a personal foul against La Porte for a late hit, but a ref with a better view talked him out of it, so the Dogs got the ball, after the punt, on the Port Arthur 44.
Johnathan Lewis stepped off one yard before Whitely got four. Vidales then hit Trevor Nelson for 18 yards and a first down at the Memorial 22. But Josh was sacked a couple of plays later so Medina was forced to come on for a 45-yard field goal. It was well long and just as straight and with 42 seconds remaining in the first period, the Bulldogs had cut the Memorial lead to 7-3.
And once again, the defense came through. Sutherland and Alex Jones combined for a tackle; Sutherland made a solo stop; and Graves, Jones and Sutherland put on a big rush to force a bad pass and a punt.
Moving this time from their own 37, the Bulldogs got close enough for another Medina field goal. The drive started with an 11-yard run by Lewis to the 48, before Whitely ran yard for five yards, Johnathan added three and the Titans were flagged for offsides to give the Dogs a first down. On third and 10, Josh fired a quick strike to tight end Blake Turlington for a first down at the Memorial 24, and once again the Dogs were in position to get into the end zone.
But that did not happen as they were stopped a yard short on third down so Eric calmly came on and booted the ball through the uprights, this time from 34 yards out, and now Memorial had just a one-point lead at 7-6 with 5:35 left before the half.
The Titans tried their best to get points back, and they were successful. They actually had a first down at the Bulldog 25 but a tackle by Sutherland for a loss of one; strong defense by Hoza Scott and Aaron Nance-Garrett produced a short gain; and an incomplete pass made it fourth down and forced a field goal of 39 yards for a 10-6 Port Arthur lead with 3:31 left in the half.
The Bulldogs could not get rolling offensively and the Titans took over with 1:18 left before the half, but they did not have great field position because Vidales got off a fine punt and Victor Holmes made a great tackle, so Memorial started on its own 21.
The Titans hit a couple of big plays, however, before Holmes and Ellis Hutchinson made nice defensive plays in the secondary on back-to-back pass attempts, so Memorial had to settle for another 39-yard field goal try. It hit the crossbar, no good, so the Dogs were down by just four at halftime.
That did not last long. The Dogs fumbled on the second play of the second half, but the disaster was averted because Chris Hickey had a big tackle; Hutchinson was on the spot in the secondary to break up a pass; Sutherland smoked a runner for a loss of three after the Dogs were offsides; and Nance-Garrett knocked down a fourth-down pass to allow the Dogs to get the ball back.
But it was three-and-out for the offense, and on their first play from the Bulldog 22 the Titans hit a 78-yard touchdown pass to move their lead to 17-6. That play also gave Memorial a ton of confidence, and forced the Bulldogs to move away from their normal ball control offense.
After another three-and-out by the offense, the Dogs began to unravel a bit. They were flagged for a personal foul on a fine Vidales punt, and they were also flagged for a facemask moments later, giving the Titans 30 free yards, on their way to another touchdown and a 24-6 lead.
That advantage soon grew to 31-6 just before the third quarter ended, and the Titans, seeking revenge from their 24-20 loss to the Dogs a few weeks ago when Memorial was ranked eighth in the state, were not about to take their foot off the gas. They hit another loss pass to the La Porte three, but Nance-Garrett threw them for a 10-yard loss; Hickey threw them for a three-yard loss; a pass missed; and Memorial was forced to settle for a 32-yard field goal with 8:30 to play.
By then, it did not matter. In fact, for all practical purposes this game ended when the Titans scored that first touchdown of the second half, because the Memorial defense was incredible. The Bulldogs, in fact, did not get a first down in the second half until just over three minutes remained in the game. That first down came on a run by Taejon Wearen, and he had another big run on the next play, covering 60 yards in two plays. No points resulted, but it was nice to see a white jersey moving the ball.
Take heart, Bulldogs backers. This was one great football season, and Coach LaReau and his staff welcome back a bunch of starters, including the entire offensive line, and a host of key defensive players as well.