BELLINGHAM -- For 59 minutes and 36 seconds, the Bellingham Bulldogs relied on its goal-line defense to keep them in the Pacific Football League first-round playoff contest.
Ahead of the Portland Monarchs 20-16 with 23.7 seconds left, the Bulldogs finally broke, allowing a fourth-down, 3-yard touchdown throw to the Monarchs, eliminating Bellingham's hopes of a repeat PFL title.
Four downs before that, it looked like the No. 1-seed Bulldogs had won, but a defensive holding penalty in the end zone allowed the No. 4-seed Monarchs four more downs.
Much like the rest of the day, when Bellingham accrued 12 penalties costing it 125 yards, the Bulldogs gave the Monarchs an opportunity and they capitalized.
"Before the game I said we couldn't have penalties that put us in position that make the game more challenging," coach Brian Young said. "They had four great plays. We think it's over and we get a penalty. That puts them in a situation where they get four more plays. They had a great stand but in that great stand you have to look at the fact that they gave them another opportunity."
The goal-line defense of the Bulldogs certainly isn't to blame for the loss. The squad forced and recovered two fumbles in the red zone, including one at the 1-yard line.
It was working so well that when Bellingham quarterback Eric Taylor threw an interception that looked like it would be returned for a Portland touchdown, Taylor even stripped the would-be scorer at the 1-yard line.
Forcing turnovers was the only thing that really seemed to be clicking for the Bulldogs, who were short-staffed for the playoff contest.
"Our team is really depleted," Young said. "We're missing half of our defensive starters. We have been struggling. We haven't played in three weeks. We don't have to make excuses but things were very difficult, very challenging for us."
Of course, if Bellingham was short-staffed with 37 players, the English language hasn't created a word for what Portland was in the 80-degree heat. The Monarchs had no more than 25 players.
It looked like the heat finally fatigued the Monarchs enough when Donovan Dunmore rumbled in for a go-ahead 42-yard touchdown run to make the game 20-16 with 5:24 left.
"I think I did OK, but I did it for my team," Dunmore said. "I had to put all my effort into it and I'm sore and banged up, but had to play 100 percent all the way through the fourth quarter."
Dunmore was one of the offensive stars for the Bulldogs, as he ran for 78 yards on 12 carries.
He was forced to step up while Taylor struggled with the passing game. Taylor threw for 219 yards, including two interceptions and two touchdowns.
"We hang our success on our passing game," Young said. "We had a three-week layoff. You know you're going to be rusty and it showed up."
Taylor's legs did pick up some of the slack as he was pressured consistently throughout the night. Taylor ran for 88 yards but couldn't escape a safety early in the fourth quarter, which gave the Monarchs the lead for the first time all game, 16-14.
If not for Taylor's first-half heroics though, Bellingham long would have been out of the game.
Almost 12 minutes in, Taylor threw a 19-yard TD pass to Doug Miller to put the Bulldogs up 7-0.
Twenty-three seconds later, Portland countered with a 59-yard bomb to even the game up at 7-all.
The first half ended with a 45-yard Taylor TD throw to Toby Seim, who caught it on a crossing route and strolled into the end zone to make it 14-7 with no time left on the second-quarter clock.
Nine minutes into the third quarter, the Monarchs evened it up with another deep bomb, this time a 57-yard heave to a streaking Monarch down the right sideline.
The loss ends the Bulldogs season with a record of 7-3.
"These are the type of things you learn from as a team," Young said. "You come back next time and say 'Hey, you know we got to be better prepared.'"
Reach Joshua Hart by email at email@example.com or by phone at 360-715-2851.