ORONO — The offense didn’t come easy Friday night for the Orono Red Riots.
Orono averaged an LTC-record 52.9 points per game this season, but it was its stout defense that was the difference in biggest game of the season.
Second-seeded Orono held John Bapst of Bangor team scoreless in the second half and rallied for 16 fourth-quarter points to pull out a 24-14 LTC Class C football semifinal victory at the University of Maine’s Alfond Stadium.
“We all got a little bit worried, but we knew we had to come back,” said Orono senior quarterback Bryce Mehnert. “We’re a second-half team. It’s always tough to beat a team the second time around.”
Coach Bob Sinclair’s Red Riots (9-1), who beaten the No. 3 Crusaders 46-21 on Oct. 14, earned a spot in the LTC championship game for the first time since 1996. Orono will travel to Bucksport next Saturday to play the Bucks in the final.
Orono held John Bapst to 171 total yards.
“People have talked so much about our offense and the points that we’ve put up over the course of the season, they tend to forget we’ve got a pretty good defense, too,” Sinclair said. “Our defense hung tough.”
Dan O’Connell’s John Bapst squad wound up 7-3 and had its streak of consecutive title-game appearances halted at four.
Orono spent the evening chasing around Bapst’s receivers and trying to get to John Bapst quarterback Deven Romain. Defensive backs Dominic Mowrer, Tyler Higgins and Nick Spaulding, along with tackles Jack Lucy and Zach Landean and end Christian Mowrer, led that effort.
Trailing 14-8, Orono held the Crusaders in check in the second half. A couple of partially blocked punts by Christian Mowrer and Lucy aided the Riots in the field-position battle.
It was a pass play that finally jump-started the run-oriented Riots early in the fourth quarter.
After a John Bapst punt, Orono took over on its own 44-yard line. On first down, Mehnert (3-for-11, 60 yards) lofted a pass down the right sideline to senior tight end Higgins, who caught it and was knocked out of bounds after a 39-yard gain to the JB 17.
“It definitely fueled that drive, which was crucial to the whole game,” said Mehnert, who got decked on the play. “It got us the momentum from then on.”
Three plays later, Christian Mowrer (14 carries, 83 yards) slashed up the middle on an 11-yard run that tied the game. He added the conversion rush, putting Orono ahead for good.
Higgins intercepted Romain (13-for-27, 141 yards, 2 TDs, 2 interceptions) on the ensuing possession, then a high punt snap through the end zone on John Bapst’s subsequent series made it 18-14.
The Riots put the game out of reach with a 10-play, 47-yard drive that culminated in Cameron Mowrer’s 5-yard scoring run with 1:16 to play.
John Bapst played much of the fourth quarter without linebacker Nick Jordan, who was in on at least 12 tackles. End Max Andrews also was a defensive standout.
Orono’s balanced ground game netted 208 rushing yards on 54 attempts, including 71 yards on 18 carries from Dominic Mowrer and 61 yards on 18 tries from Cameron Mowrer.
Orono opened the game by marching 70 yards on eight plays. It included a 34-yard pass from Mehnert to Higgins and a 20-yard run by Dominic Mowrer. Mehnert punched it in from a yard out and Dominic Mowrer added the PAT rush.
John Bapst equalized on its second possession, going 81 yards in eight plays. Romain completed five passes, including a 13-yard scoring toss to Max Andrews. David Dieuveuil’s kick cut the deficit to 8-7 with 1:47 left in the first quarter.
The Crusaders took the lead in the second quarter when Romain hit a wide-open Jake Moore on a 44-yard TD pass. The PAT made it 14-8 at the 4:34 mark.
“They can strike deep at any time,” Sinclair said. “They’ve got lots of weapons and they’re good at it. We knew coming in this was going to be a dogfight and it was.”
Tyler Eddy made an interception later in the half to keep Orono within striking distance.
Bapst, which didn’t run the ball effectively out of its spread scheme, didn’t have much success throwing the ball after halftime. The Crusaders managed only three first downs in the second half.
Andrews made four catches for 55 yards, Andrew Catlin had four receptions for 49 yards and Moore finished with three grabs for 64 yards. John Bapst rushed for only 30 yards on 14 attempts.
“We had to stick to our man, play heads up,” Higgins said of the defense. “We won our one-on-one battles and we stuck it out.”