Despite another season-high rushing performance from Tupac Lanier, Statesboro couldn’t even find the endzone in their 29-0 loss to Ware County Friday night.
Off the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew and nearly two weeks off, Statesboro came into the game fresh but were outclassed in every way possible by a better, healthier Ware County team. But even when down 22-0 in the second half, Statesboro never showed signs of giving in to Ware’s offensive attack.
“Honestly we did do a lot of good things,” said head coach Steve Pennington. “With their complex system I feel like our defense played well and I really feel like our offense moved the ball.”
Saying that, the second half started off less than ideal. Ware had deferred to the second half to receive the kickoff and returned it to midfield -- then were moved further to the Statesboro 35 on a late hit out-of-bounds by the Blue Devils.
It took the Gators just three plays to punch in their fourth touchdown of the game on a four-yard run by quarterback Jamar Lincoln. Lincoln proved to be a nightmare for Statesboro all game as the senior quarterback racked up 201 of Ware County’s 296 total yards and three of their four touchdowns.
But from that score on, it was a different Statesboro team that took the field. Going into that last scoring drive Ware County was averaging 9.4 yards per play, but for the rest of the game Statesboro held Ware County to 3.4 yards a play. Keep in mind Ware subbed in their backups with just over eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, but it goes to show Statesboro never stopped fighting despite being shutout.
“We can’t blame any of this on hurricanes or any other stuff,” Pennington said. “You still have to perform and there were some things there that just weren’t very crisp. It was a trying week and I thought we responded well.”
It was Statesboro’s offense that perhaps struggled the most. It wasn’t as if Statesboro wasn’t able to move the football, but it was the absence of big plays that came against Tattnall County on Oct. 1 — specifically in the passing game — that hurt the most. Of Statesboro’s nine drives, only one crossed midfield.
That drive was Statesboro’s best of the game. Starting at the end of the third quarter, Lanier opened up the passing game by completing three of his six passes for 25 yards. With 3rd and five at the Ware 42, a costly illegal shift penalty moved Statesboro back five yards. Lanier’s next pass was dropped — forcing Statesboro to punt for fourth time. The Blue Devil’s would punt six times in the game.
By Statesboro’s standards, their run game was better than usual. The Blue Devil’s rushed for 4.9 yards a carry on 27 rushes, and Lanier completed nine of his 14 throws but for 51 yards. Perhaps the most productive player for Statesboro was wide receiver Wright Rockett, who caught four of his six targets for 34 yards and three first downs.
But it first half is where everything went wrong for Statesboro. Things started off badly when star linebacker and leading tackler Chris Hill went down with an injury three plays into Ware’s first drive -- putting the the Blue Devil’s in an early hole. From that point on, the first half was dominated by Ware County in every facet of the game.
“We know it’s his knee,” Pennington said. “He’ll be diagnosed over the weekend and we’ll know the extent of it by Monday.”
All five of Ware County’s first half drives went inside the Statesboro 40 yard line. The Blue Devil’s were fortunate to only be down 22-0 with the way Ware County was moving the ball. Ware County averaged 9.2 yards per carry on their 20 rushes in the first half -- 153 of their 184 first half rushing yards came by Lincoln on just 11 carries.
“He was their team,” said linebacker Zach Anderson. “He was their run game. He always found a way to break one or two tackles and get off to the races.”
After Statesboro’s first drive went six plays and a punt, Ware got the ball for their first drive on their own 27. From their the Gators worked down the field on 12 plays, including three 3rd down conversions, for their first score. Statesboro would respond by coughing up the snap on the first play of next the drive and handing the ball right back to Lincoln and company inside the Statesboro 25.
“Turnovers have really hurt us all year,” Rockett said. “It seems like everytime we get in a groove something happens and it turns around. We had a lot of injuries tonight and that didn’t help either.”
But to the defenses credit — they held tough. Statesboro broke up a pass on 3rd and four to force 4th down and the kicking unit for Ware County. Ware ran a fake, which ended with Lincoln running from one side of the field to the other avoiding Statesboro defenders. Lincoln somehow found an open receiver down at the five yard line — but Alex Sayles dropped the pass to cut Statesboro a break.
Statesboro’s next drive would go six plays and punt, giving it to Ware inside their own 15. Lincoln broke back-to-back big runs to bring the Gators down to the Statesboro 27, but on the subsequent play Sage Reese would lay a massive hit on Lincoln to force a fumble — allowing Statesboro to recover.
But Statesboro’s fortune would last four plays, as they would cough it right back up to Ware inside the Statesboro 40. Lincoln took the next play 38 yards to the house to put Ware up 15-0 following a two-point conversion.
“When you play good teams you can ill-afford to give them more opportunities,” Pennington said. “The turnovers certainly allowed us to give up some easy points.”
The next drive Statesboro had worked downfield 20 yards for their third punt of the game, only to have it blocked and returned to their own 20. Six plays and a 4th-down conversion later, Ware punched in their third touchdown of the game to go up 22-0.
Statesboro (0-7) will have to turn things around quickly when they have to face New Hampstead (1-4-1) on Tuesday at 6:00 p.m. on just four days rest.
“It was certainly in the back of our minds that we had to turn around and play on Tuesday,” Rockett said. “We practice Sunday and Monday. We still have three more chances to get in the playoffs.”
That is indeed the silver lining for Statesboro. Their next three opponents — Wayne County, South Effingham and New Hampstead — are a combined 2-17-1. Surely, the Blue Devil’s can find one win in the next three weeks and make a push for the playoffs.