When Exeter got into the red zone they scored touchdowns. When Portsmouth got into the red zone they turned the ball over. As a result Exeter advances to the D-I semi-finals while Portsmouth is eliminated from the playoffs.
Portsmouth had 4 drives where they ran plays inside Exeter's 20 yard line. Three of them resulted in interception thrown by QB Connor DiCesare (2 picks by Chris Kelley and one by Ryan Ball) and the other possession resulted in a turnover on downs. 4 drives inside the 20 resulting in 0 points. Exeter won by 4 touchdowns. That's the difference.
"When we're back on the goal line on defense we get all fired up and play like it's our last game ever" said Kelley. "We wanted it more than them."
The first failed red zone attempt for Portsmouth was on the game's second drive. Portsmouth had the ball first, and DiCesare (16/30 passing for 240 yards and 1 TD plus 24 yards rushing) hit Aaron Jones for a 13 yard completion. But then the drive stalled and the Clippers were forced to punt. But then Exeter fumbled the punt return and it was recovered by Portsmouth on the Exeter 19 yard line. On 3rd and 7 from the Exeter 17 yard line DiCesare's pass was tipped and intercepted by Kelley inside the 5 yard line.
"Those interceptions were huge, they gave us momentum" said Exeter senior captain OL/DL Neil Vorster.
Exeter finally gets possession, but they're way back on their own 6 yard line. That was perfectly fine with them however, as the Blue Hawks marched down the field, driving 94 yards with the drive ending in a 19 yard TD by Kelley. Earlier on the drive Quintin Desjardins mad a nice tackle for no gain, Ball connected with TE Hunter Long for a 31 yard pass and Nicholas Flodstrom broke a 14 yard run. After Kelley's score it was 7-0 Exeter with 3:46 left in the 1st quarter.
Portsmouth ball trying to answer back, and DiCesare threw an absolute bomb down field into the hands of receiver Loden Formichelli (7 catches for 107 yards) for a 54 yard completion. One of the best throws I've seen all year. Then DiCesare again hit Formichelli, this time for an 8 yard gain down to the Exeter 3 yard line. Then it was 3rd and goal for Portsmouth on the 1 yard line. DiCesare took a 2 step drop and looked to throw. His pass went directly to Ball, for an interception in the end zone. That was the play of the game right there, a big swing in momentum.
"That was huge, we can't turn the ball over down there" said Portsmouth head coach Brian Pafford. You've gotta finish, you've gotta pound it in."
Again, Exeter capitalized on the Clippers turnover. They went to work with their ground attack, with Flodstrom (49 yards), Kelley (73 74 yards and 2 TDs), Mark Cicchini 123 yards and 2 TDs) and Shane Quimby (57 yards and 1 TD) all rotating carries. Quimby rushed for a 13 yard gain, then Flodstrom picked up a tough 7 yards on 3rd and 1 from the Portsmouth 38 yard line. Kelly rushed for a 10 yard pickup to set up 1st and goal from the 1 yard line. Kelley finished the drive with a 1 yard TD run, his second TD of the game and it was 14-0 Blue Hawks with 6:10 left in the 2nd quarter.
Portsmouth ball. They're down by 2 scores but with an explosive passing game they're still very much in it. And the drive started out promising, as DiCesare hit Formichelli for a 13 yard pass play on 3rd and 7 from their own 36 yard line. But then the Clippers where whistled for holding (penalties plagued Portsmouth throughout the contest). Then Portsmouth completed a short pass and Exeter LB Mason Wallace made a bone crushing hit. He is one of the hardest hitters we've seen this year. Portsmouth was forced to punt. It was 14-0 Exeter at halftime.
Blue Hawks ball to start the 2nd half, looking to build on their 2 score lead. The drive started back on their own 22 yard line. Justis Mattis-Clark made a good hit on 'D'. Then on 3rd and 8 for Exeter from their own 24 yard line QB Ryan Ball kept it himself and scampered for 8 yards, just enough for the 1st down.Kelley ran for an 11 yard gain. But then Portsmouth's defense buckled down. Sophomore Alex Gladu sacked Ball, and then Mattis-Clark and Evan Jones teamed up fr a strong hit for no gain and the Blue hawks were forced to punt.
Portsmouth gets the ball back, and again they were able to move the football with ease on the tough Exeter 'D' and advance deep into their end. On 3rd and 3 from their own 27 yard line DiCesare connected with receiver Tristan Mellynchuck for an 8 yard completion and 1st down. Then came another great throw by DiCesare, as he hit Joey Auger for a 36 yard pass play on a crucial 3rd and 15 attempt from their own 44. DiCesare ran for a 9 yard gain, to set up 1st and goal from the 9 yard line. DiCesare scrambled to the 4 yard line, and again the Clippers were knocking on the door of a TD. But once again they were unable to convert. On 3rd and goal from the 4, DiCesare was sacked by Exeter's Mitchell Herrington. Then on 4th and goal from the 10, DiCesare scrambled behind the line to avoid another sack, looking for an open receiver against the Blue Hawk's blanket coverage. His pass to the end zone was tipped by Jackson Allen and fell incomplete. Turnover on downs. Another missed opportunity for Portsmouth.
As they always seem to do, Exeter turned a missed opportunity by Portsmouth into a touchdown for them. So they got the ball back, and on 3rd and 5 from way back on their own 15 yard line Mark Cicchini took the hand-off for what initially looked like it would be a short gain. But he got a block, made a good cut, broke a tackle and then sprinted up the right sideline, 85 yards for the TD. 21-0 Exeter.
"At the last second everything opened up and I was gone" said Cicchini. "One of their players grabbed me by the ankles from behind at the end, so those last 10 yards were tough but I kept going."
Portsmouth really had their backs against the wall now, but they weren't giving up yet. This time they finally did get on the scoreboard, but ironically they scored from beyond the red zone. DiCesare hit Formichelli for a 15 yard pass then threw a 19 yard pass to Aaron Jones. He capped the drive with a 32 yard TD pass to sophomore Shon Parham. The PAT was partially blocked and fell short, so with 9:10 left in the 4th quarter it was 21-6 Exeter.
The Clippers went for an onside kick, got a good bounce and were able to recover it. They were still in it, but really needed another score here. Unfortunately they weren't able to get past the Exeter 45 yard line. On 4th and 5 from the 45 DiCesare's long pass down field was incomplete and nearly picked off by Allen. Turnover on downs.
Things were really looking bleak for Portsmouth now, with the clock ticking down. Then Exeter added the exclamation point on the win. Flodstrom ran for an 11 yard gain, and then Cicchini ran in the 9 yard TD. 28-6 Blue Hawks with just 5:02 left in the 4th quarter.
Portsmouth ball, still holding on to a glimmer of hope. But DiCesare was again intercepted by Kelley (who now had 2 INTs on 'D' and 2 TD runs on offense). Kelley picked off the pass back around his own 45 yard line and returned it to the PHS 42 yard line.
Exeter ball, and Quimby runs for a 31 yard gain, and nearly went for the TD but was tackled and forced out of bounds by Christian Peete. Portsmouth was whistled for a personal foul after the play, giving Exeter the ball 1st and goal from the 3. Quimmby ran in the TD from there, and it was now 35-6 Blue Hawks with just 4:38 remaining.
DiCesare threw another interception in the red zone after an Exeter fumble gave the Clippers good field position. Danny Fowler record the pick for EHS. Both teams then sent in their backups and the Blue Hawks cruised to the 35-6 win.
"I'm proud of our guys" said Coach Pafford. "We had 5 or 6 guys who decided not to play this year when they found out we were moving up to D-I. I think we proved those guys wrong with the season we had. Exeter is strong, they're physical. I like their chances moving forward."
Portsmouth was playing without starters Mikel Toar and Devon Wilson-Miles. Coach Pafford declined to comment on why they sat out.