PORTAGE - The Portage Mustangs will roll into next week's District 6 Class A playoffs with a huge boost of confidence and momentum after knocking off top-seeded and previously undefeated Homer-Center, 35-19, before a packed senior night crowd Friday.
The Mustangs (8-1) solidified their position as the No. 1 seed and clinched home-field advantage for the first two rounds of the postseason.
The Heritage Conference champion Wildcats (9-1) had no answer for a balanced Mustang attack that featured several standout performances. Caleb Kephart led all rushers with 121 yards and scored twice, while Luke Dividock finished with 114 yards and one touchdown. Mustang quarterback Michael Bryja completed 11 of 13 passes for 98 yards and one touchdown while also rushing for another score.
"They [Homer-Center] are a good offensive team, and we knew we had to respond," Portage coach Gary Gouse said. "Our offensive line did a great job, our backs ran hard, and Michael Bryja put the ball exactly where it had to be."
Portage's defense also forced a pair of Homer-Center turnovers, both of which were converted to points by the Mustangs.
The first of those came on the game's opening possession when Joe Randazzo picked off a tipped pass to halt a Wildcat drive that consumed nearly six minutes and 13 plays. Bryja then completed four straight throws for 59 yards during a 76-yard march that was capped off by Dividock's 8-yard run for a 7-0 lead.
Dividock's 28-yard run on the ensuing series was followed by a 20-yard strike to C.W. Miller that set up Bryja's 4-yard scoring pass to Kephart at the 9:57 mark of the second quarter.
Homer-Center then put together a 12-play, 73-yard drive to get back in the game as Matt McAdoo's 1-yard score pulled the Wildcats within 14-7.
Dividock again came up with a huge gainer for Portage on the following possession as his 43-yard run led to Kephart's 6-yard touchdown with just over two minutes left in the half.
"You can't play defense like we did against a team with the backs they have," Homer-Center coach Greg Page said. "We moved the ball but just couldn't stop them."
A critical mistake by the Wildcats early in the third allowed the Mustangs to take a commanding three-touchdown lead. Homer-Center muffed a Portage punt at the Wildcat 21 on the opening series of the second half, and after a 13-yard completion from Bryja to Miller gave the Mustangs a first-and-goal, Bryja subsequently scored on a 1-yard sneak to make it 28-7.
Aaron Berezansky returned the ensuing kickoff 67 yards to set up McAdoo's second touchdown of the night to once again make it a 2-possession game, but Homer-Center would get no closer.
Kephart's three rushes for 51 yards keyed a fourth-quarter scoring drive that was climaxed by Joe Randazzo's 1-yard touchdown that stretched Portage's edge to 35-13 with 7:19 to play before Anthony Caruso's 1-yard score for the Wildcats in the waning minutes set the eventual final.
Portage's opponent will be determined based on the outcome of the Bishop?Carroll-Westmont Hilltop game.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Homer-Center0 7 6 6 - 19
Portage7 17 7 7 - 35
P-Dividock 8 run (Lutz kick), 1:25.
P-Kephart 4 pass from Bryja (Lutz kick), 9:57.
HC-McAdoo 1 run (Lee kick), 4:54.
P-Kephart 6 run (Swires kick), 2:11.
P-Bryja 1 run (Lutz kick) 6:50.
HC-McAdoo 1 run (kick failed) 3:47.
P-Randazzo 1 run (Lutz kick) 7:19.
HC-Caruso 1 run (run failed) 2:58.
RUSHING: Homer-Center-Newhouse 2-7, Lee 15-80, McAdoo 15-54, Berezansky 11-28, Caruso 1-1, Coleman 1-(-2), Sasala 1-5. Portage-Kephart 17-121, Dividock 12-114, Giles 1-1, Randazzo 5-12, Bryja 2-0, Onder 1-9
PASSING: Homer-Center-Berezansky 5-11-1-61. Portage-Bryja 11-13-0-98
RECEIVING: Homer-Center-McAdoo 1-5, Bence 1-19, Caruso 1-11, Ireland 1-13, Sasala 1-13. Portage-Miller 5-69, Randazzo 2-18, Kephart 3-7, Dividock 1-4