PORTAGE - For years Portage has been a run-first, pass-if-needed team.
The Mustangs have also had their fair share of playoff disappointment during those seasons.
The No. 1 seed in the District 6 Class A playoffs just might have the tools to shed that reputation this year.
Portage cruised past Blairsville, 49-14, in the District 6-A quarterfinals Friday at Portage Area Stadium. While the Mustangs certainly ran the ball well, piling up 316 yards on the ground, quarterback Michael Bryja proved he can make his squad two-dimensional by going 6-for-8 with 137 yards and a touchdown through the air.
"They did a good job passing the ball. Bryja is a good quarterback, and he throws a nice ball," Blairsville coach Rick Artley said. "That's what made us pay more than anything. It wasn't really the run game in the first half, it was passing. They did a great job."
The most clear example that Portage coach Gary Gouse has faith in both Bryja and the passing game came in the second quarter. Blairsville had just finished off a six-play, 56-yard drive capped off by a Scott Thompson touchdown run that cut the Mustangs' lead to 21-7 with 30 seconds to play before the half.
Portage got the ball at its own 36 after the kickoff. Rather than sit on a 14-point lead, Gouse had a talk with Bryja.
"I made the decision we were going to go for a score there," Gouse said. "I went over to Michael, and he said 'let's do it coach' and I said 'OK, let's go' and bam, bam, bam he went to work with it. I was really proud of how he handled himself."
Bryja completed three passes to C.W. Miller, a 34-yard bomb, a 16-yard sideline route and capped off the drive with 5 seconds to spare after rolling out to his left and finding Miller in the end zone for a 14-yard score.
"After I completed that first pass, I had tons of confidence," Bryja said. "I just went out there and put the ball where it needed to be. My line gave me great protection, and C.W. came up with some very nice catches.
"That gave us so much momentum. If we wouldn't have scored right there, it would have changed the whole game."
Instead, a deflated Blairsville team gave up a 59-yard touchdown run to Caleb Kephart on the Mustangs' first play from scrimmage in the second half, and the game was basically over.
Portage will host the winner of the Penns Manor, Bishop Guilfoyle game tonight in the semifinals next week.
"Both of those teams are very good," Bryja said. "But if we play like this, I think we can beat them."
The way Portage played Friday was basically perfect. It allowed just one touchdown on defense (Thompson returned a kickoff 85 yards for Blairsville's other score). The Mustangs' Nick Lutz made all seven of his extra points, and Portage did not commit a penalty.
"Our kids played their guts out," Gouse said. "They battled and played really, really well. Our offense got going, the line blocked well and our defense played well."
Kephart finished with 175 yards on just 15 carries and scored two touchdowns.
"They run the ball with a pulling guard and take you to the football," Artley said. "We knew where they were going, but they were good enough to dominate us anyway, especially in the second half."
Blairsville finished the season 6-5, while Portage improved to 9-1.
"Whoever we play next, it will be a great program," Gouse said. "BG is a heavy favorite, so we'll see what happens. I know Penns Manor has a big front line, so they should hopefully give them a good game."
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Blairsville0 7 7 0 - 14
Portage7 21 21 0 - 49
P-Kephart 12 fumble return (Lutz kick), 5:03.
P-Giles 3 run (Lutz kick), 10:33.
P-Bryja 1 run (Lutz kick), 1:44.
B-Thompson 1 run (Stipcak kick), 0:30.
P-Miller pass from Bryja (Lutz kick), 0:05.
P-Kephart 59 run (Lutz kick), 9:58.
B-Thompson 85 kickoff return (Stipcak kick), 9:42.
P-Kephart 24 run (Lutz kick), 7:18.
P-Onder 9 run (Lutz kick), 4:03.
RUSHING: Blairsville-Robinson 11-37, J. Faulk 3-24, Shirley 1-9, A. Faulk 1-2, Thompson 11-(-25). Portage-Kephart 15-175, Onder 8-70, Dividock 8-56, Randazzo 5-20, Giles 3-12, Bryja 2-(-7), Herman 2-(-10).
PASSING: Blairsville-Thompson 7-13-1-128, Rydbom 1-1-0-6, Shirley 1-3-0-11. Portage-Bryja 6-8-0-137.
RECEIVING: Blairsville-Livingston 5-83, Robinson 3-51, Fetchko 1-11. Portage-Miller 3-64, Randazzo 3-73.
INTERCEPTIONS: Blairsville-none. Portage-Dividock.