Perfection will be honored Friday night at Womack Field.
At halftime of the Statesboro High-Bradwell Institute football game, members of the 2005 Blue Devils state championship team will return to mark the 10-year anniversary of that remarkable season that ended with a 13-10 victory over Northside-Warner Robins.
"The game against Northside was one heck of a game itself. It was superb," said Steve Pennington, head coach then and now. "But the championship took all 15 games. Something that should not be underestimated — winning the championship was great, it was our goal. But to do it and to go 15 and 0 … perfection. … What an accomplishment. That doesn't happen often."
It certainly doesn't. Coach Pennington and I had a chance Thursday to sit down and talk about the amazing 2005 season and, specifically, the championship game.
The 2005 Class AAAA title game was played Friday, Dec. 2, at Paulson Stadium. Georgia Southern agreed to host the game at Paulson because, playing at the old Womack Field, Statesboro didn't believe they had enough seats to hold the expected crowd.
And they were right. More than 17,000 people filled both sides of the stands on that cold night, and most were in a frenzy before the kickoff.
"Right when the game was about to start, it was so loud, I didn't know how we were going to hear the signals," Pennington said.
Clash of unbeatens
Both teams came into the game with identical 14-0 records. Each relied on power running games, though Northside spread the field more often. And each had a killer defense.
Current NFL players Justin Houston and Deangelo Tyson are certainly the most well-known names off that Blue Devil defense, but John Knox and Josh McCook, Prathon Wilkerson, David Jones and Alex Dekle were top-notch defenders, too. In 15 games, the Statesboro defense allowed only 99 points, and only four opponents even scored more than 10 points.
While Northside came into the game with a small history of program success, Statesboro was on a historic ride. The Blue Devils were playing in their fifth state title game in six years, including a win over Dalton, 51-13, to earn the 2001 state AAAA title. Coming into the 2005 state title game, Statesboro had won 76 of its previous 85 contests. But two of those defeats were hanging heavy on the senior group of Blue Devils: losses to Marist and Warner Robins in the 2003 and 2004 state championship games.
So, the team decided to set a different tone leading up to the 2005 title game.
"Our theme for that week and that game was: To get something that you've never had, you have to do something you've never done," Pennington said.
Northside dominated the early action and went ahead 7-0 on a halfback pass off a reverse with 2:21 to play in the first quarter. It was the first time Statesboro trailed in the playoffs and only the second time all season.
"Going down wasn't that concerning," Pennington said. "Congratulations to Northside for having the confidence to execute a trick play. But we were sticking to what we do: power running, field position, strong special teams, defense forcing turnovers."
Blue Devils strike
With five minutes to play in the first half, the Devils pounced. A punt pinned Northside near its goal line, and one play later the Eagles fumbled, setting up Statesboro from the 3-yard line. Charles Rock, Statesboro's leading rusher, pounded it in from the 2 to tie the score.
A strong defensive series forced a three-and-out for Northside, and the Devils took over near the Northside 40. Using some short passes by quarterback David Cone, the Devils moved down the field, and kicker Josh Rich gave Statesboro a 10-7 lead with a 25-yard field goal only 12 seconds before halftime.
Early in the third quarter, Northside launched one of its best drives of the game, getting to the Statesboro 4-yard line, but the defense stuffed the Eagles on third-and-one, and Northside had to settle for a tying field goal with 7:14 to go in the third quarter.
From that point, the game became a defensive war. Neither team could mount any consistent offense, and the teams exchanged punts deep into the fourth quarter. With a little more than three minutes left in the game, Northside took over on its own 18, the game still knotted at 10. And if the game ended that way, Statesboro and Northside would have been co-champs. (The rule has since been changed to allow overtime in state title games.)
But Statesboro wasn't interested in sharing a championship.
A game-changing hit
On first down, Northside receiver Kevin Cooper caught a short pass at the 22-yard line. But John Knox broke on the receiver quickly, along with linebacker Josh McCook. Knox hit him first, McCook a fraction later, and the ball popped up in the air. It landed at the 23, and McCook jumped on it.
"So, we had about three minutes, and our mindset was to score a touchdown," Pennington said. "But foremost was ball security."
Statesboro was able to grind out a first down to the Northside 12, but with only 11.6 seconds to play, Pennington didn't want to risk another play. He sent Josh Rich out to win a championship, and he wasn't worried about the 16-year-old junior feeling pressure.
"The way (offensive coordinator and special teams coach Kenny) Tucker got on him in practice, he was ready for that kick," Pennington said.
And Rich certainly was. His 29-yard kick split the uprights with seven seconds to play — 13-10 Statesboro. The euphoria didn't last long, because Pennington knew they had to regain their focus and execute their kick coverage.
"We squibbed it, and when the Northside returner picked it up, he came toward our sideline," Pennington remembered. "When he got to the 45 or so, I got an uneasy feeling. But we had a blanket. Our guys did a great job of not getting caught up in the moment and each individual trying to make the play of the night. We did what we were supposed to do in keeping the ball carrier in front of us. And we got him down."
Jubilation, then appreciation
And then — "Jubilation. Complete jubilation. An incredible feeling of joy," Pennington said.
"These guys had opportunities for two state championships, and we reflected over that in the locker room, that we did something we had never done before, and that's win a state championship. So, in that regard, we just savored the moment.
"It was jubilation, but it was won with a humble spirit. There was excitement, of course, but I can see us in that locker room at Paulson Stadium. That accomplishment took a lot of energy and a lot of drive. There was a subtle moment in there that they realized what they had accomplished, and there was a spirit of joy, peace and contentment and respect for one another.
"That's what was special in the locker room. Out on the field, they could do back flips of celebration, but in there, it was a special moment. I think there was just a lot of love in that room and just a great appreciation for everybody on that football team."
In our community, we felt the same way — an appreciation for a tremendous group of young men and their coaching staff who, for one high school football season, were perfect.
Jim Healy is operations manager/editor for the Statesboro Herald. He may be reached at (912) 489-9402.