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Blue Devils enter game at Ware Co. as big underdogs

    Now that the hurricane dust has settled and most of the power is back on, Statesboro can finally focus on football for a change.
    But focus is the key word, as this is no ordinary game week for the Blue Devils by any stretch. Much like a normal game week, Statesboro will travel to Ware County on Friday night at the regular time of 7:30 p.m.
    But the twist is Statesboro will have to turn around in four days to play New Hampstead back at Womack Field. Granted Statesboro isn’t the only team in the area who’s schedule has been shaken up — but it still presents a unique opportunity for head coach Steve Pennington and his staff.
    “I’ve seen a lot in my career, but this one has some complexities for sure,” Pennington said. “Back on 9/11 we had to play on a Monday night at Josey and play again on Friday, but the difference there is it only involved two teams. This scenario involves many.”
    First and foremost is to focus on Ware County, a team whose record certainly doesn’t tell the whole story of its season. Ware County might be the best 2-3 team in the state, with their opponents' records standing at a combined 26-6. The Gators' losses have come to Class AAAAAA powers Glynn Academy, 6-1 Northside  Warner Robins and 6-1 Lowndes.
    They’re currently Grady’s only loss on the season and one of Coffee County’s two losses on the season. On schedule alone, Ware County might be the best team Statesboro has seen all season.
    “It’s not just the team it’s the program,” Pennington said. “They had success for several years with that coaching staff, Being 2-3, no one needs to be misled by that. The three teams they lost to are all in higher classifications.”
    Pennington emphasized New Hampstead is the last thing Statesboro has to worry about because Ware presents a far greater challenge. In last season’s game Statesboro had a 3-0 lead going into halftime, but were subsequently outscored 39-0 in the second half. Statistics say this year’s Statesboro’s team is better than last year’s, but last year’s second half still sticks with some of the players.
    “That definitely still stings,” said senior safety Julian Harrison. “We’re going to use that plus these last six games as motivation.”
    While this season’s Ware County team is absent Dedrick Mills, who’s now starring at Georgia Tech and who rushed for 203 yards in the 2015 game, the offense hasn’t skipped a beat thanks to their quarterback Jemar Lincoln. Lincoln only had three rushes in last year’s game, but that’s because Ware didn’t need him to.
    “Mills plus their other backs made it where last season Ware didn’t have to run him (Lincoln)” Pennington said. “They don’t have that power back this year, so that’s why Ware’s sporting him a little bit more.”
    This season Lincoln is the offense. The senior has accounted for 65 percent of Ware County’s total yardage and 11 of their 16 touchdowns. It’s no secret at this point Statesboro has struggled mightily with the dual threat quarterback and Pennington is aware of that.
    “We have got to play fast,” Pennington said. “We’ve got to come out of the starting blocks like on the 100-meter dash. It’s going to be an opportunity for us to play above our level.”
    As for Statesboro, they’ll be well rested after having a week off and according to Pennington none of his players suffered any notable hardship from Hurricane Matthew. The psychological side of things is where you worry for Statesboro, as fourth quarters have not been kind to them this season.
    The one statistic that really sums up the season for Statesboro is their fourth quarter scoring. In the first three quarters of games, Statesboro has a point differential of +9. It’s not great, but they’re technically outscoring their opponents for the first 36 minutes. But in the fourth quarter, the point differential falls off to -66. Blame injuries, depth or whatever it may be — the last 12 minutes have killed Statesboro in 2016.
    “Coaches have really been cranking up the intensity during the last 45 minutes of practice,” Harrison said. “What you do in practice translates over to games, so hopefully that will help us.”
    The silver-lining going into today is Statesboro appears to have figured out their offense two weeks ago against Tattnall. Tupac Lanier played the game of his life at quarterback, going 17-24 for 171 yards and another 83 on the ground with two scores. The passing game opened up better than ever, which is going to be key for Statesboro to move the ball on a Ware County defense that’s looked suspect at times.
    Keep in mind the level of competition for Ware has been far-and-away better than anything Statesboro has seen this year. But Ware is giving up 8.9 yards per play in five games, which is technically worse than Statesboro’s 7.1. This game could amount to a shootout, something Statesboro has yet to get caught up in this season.
    No matter the result of the game, Statesboro will still have to recover from this game to turn around and play their second region game against New Hampstead. But for now, Ware is the concern and a big one at that. The Blue Devil’s may just look to get out of Waycross alive to settle in and get a more manageable 1-4-1 New Hampstead at home.