A 14-0 run by Effingham County gave Statesboro fourth quarter nightmares yet again in a 20-16 loss for the Blue Devil’s Friday night.
“Honestly for everybody who witnessed this night, it was the purity of what high school football is all about,” said Statesboro head coach Steve Pennington. “Both teams, student bodies and the bands really brought it tonight.”
As the same for the Burke County and Liberty County games, Statesboro took a lead, this time 9-6, into the fourth quarter. Momentum rolled the way of the Blue Devils with 11:51 left of the fourth quarter when a shotgun pitch from Effingham quarterback Jerid Stokes to Toot Johnson was too high over the running backs head.
Johnson had no time to recover as Statesboro linebacker Ben Pope was there to blow the play up, allowing the ball to bounce about for linebacker Clayton Snyder to pick up the ball and dance in for six. The touchdown was followed with a team celebration in the endzone, firing up the crowd to decibel levels so loud it was hard to think.
“When you get a turn of events like that, you have to make the most of it,” Snyder said. “We had everybody hyped up.”
The following kickoff was put in the endzone, forcing Effingham to start from their own 20 yard line with the game seemingly in Statesboro’s hands for once with a 16-7 lead. What then ensued was a dominant, momentum-squashing drive by Effingham that went 10 plays with four first downs. Johnson was fed the ball consistently, forcing multiple missed tackles from Statesboro -- many of them behind the line of scrimmage.
“He was a good back for sure,” said Statesboro defensive back Dante’ Boyd, who finished the night with four tackles and two passes defended.
“We just kept trying to hit him instead of wrapping up and driving.”
The big difference on the drive was Stokes, who before had gone 3-9 passing for just 43 yards. The sophomore quarterback hit two big passes to Demario Grant and Demonte Lee for first downs -- making it the first time all game he was successful throwing against Statesboro’s zone-coverage scheme.
The drive took less than three minutes and ended with a 10-yard touchdown run by Johnson to cut the deficit to three following a missed PAT. With 7:12 left, Statesboro’s lead didn’t seem as safe as it was in what seemed like seconds.
Statesboro could only manage one first down on their next drive, which ended in a sack of Tupac Lanier who played quarterback for the night in the place of the injured Davis Wiggins. A solid punt from Dowden, who averaged 42.8 yards on four punts for the night, stuck Effingham inside their own 20 -- wafting a feeling of not-so-long-ago deja vu over the field.
The following drive was an even more dominant showing from Johnson and company, as the Rebels marched 80 yards in just five plays by way of more broken tackles by Johnson and Gant. The touchdown came by way of a pass from Stokes to Gant for 18 yards. In less than ten minutes, Statesboro went from up 16-7 to down 20-16 with their hopes riding on Lanier playing a position he has never played in a live high school game.
Statesboro’s comeback attempt started from their
own 31 yard line with 2:29 left in the game. On a 2nd-and-9 Lanier dropped back with all four of his receivers running vertical routes. Lanier heaved it to the inner-most slot receiver on the left side of the field, Malik Prowell. Prowell, just five foot nine, didn’t have the height to get up over the top of Effingham safety Demonte Lee -- who picked off the pass and pushed the dagger through the heart of a would-be, could-be, should-be Statesboro victory.
“We’re obviously disappointed in the loss,” Pennington said. “But I couldn’t be more proud of our players.”
Lanier was hard on himself after the loss, taking personal responsibility for the outcome -- despite playing a position he’s never played in a real high school game. He said something was off on the final play for Statesboro -- causing him to panic and was unsure of his read.
“They didn’t tell me the reads of who I was supposed to throw it to,” Lanier said. “I guess I was supposed to throw it to the single receiver, but no one told me he was in the game.”
When asked about the proper read on the play, offensive coordinator Bradley Ward simply replied, “Tupac did a good job and we’re proud of him.”
Lanier would finish with 11 carries for 62 yards, with six of those carries going for at least five yards. It was his best rushing performance of the year, and despite the two turnovers the junior had his coaches and teammates commending him on his performance in the game.
“It’s hard for someone to handle such a big burden
with such little time,” said Prowell, who finished with 18 yards on seven carries with a touchdown. “We’re all proud of him.”
The real difference maker turned out to be Johnson,
who finished the game with 193 yards on 25 carries and a touchdown. Multiple times Statesboro defenders had at least a hand on Johnson in the Effingham backfield, but Johnson’s balance and keen lateral movement made him difficult to wrap up and bring down.
Of Johnson’s 25 runs, 11 went for at least five yards and another six went for at least ten.
“Their offensive line was great tonight,” Pennington
said. “Johnson is a special player and special players make things happen.”
Akin to last week, Statesboro struck first in the first quarter after being set up with fabulous field position with a tipped punt by Isa Mobley. Mobley came unblocked off the edge to just get a fingertip on the punt from Stokes to have the ball roll out of bounds to the 20 yard line after the Statesboro defense forced a three-and-out at the Effingham six.
A 12-yard run on 2nd and 8 from Lanier set up first and goal for Statesboro, allowing Prowell to punch it in two plays later from four yards. Following the blocked extra point, the score laid 6-0, but fortunes would turn against Statesboro come the second quarter.
On the first play from a designed quarterback run, Lanier ran into the teeth of
the Effingham defense and continued to grind against multiple defenders. His hard work turned out to be too hard however, as in the midst of a plethora of defenders Lanier was stripped and Effingham recovered the ball at the Statesboro 34.
“I honestly feel less comfortable in this offense now after the game,” Lanier said.
“If I hadn’t had those two turnovers we might of had a chance.”
The following drive saw a 15-yard pass from Stokes to Gant to set Effingham up inside the 15, then an 11-yard cutback run from Zabrandon Gant punched the ball in for Effingham’s first score of the night with 8:07 left in the first half. Both fumbles Statesboro have coughed up inside their own territory this season have turned into touchdowns for opponents.
Statesboro (0-4) heads back on the road to face Appling County (2-1) next Friday at 7:30 p.m.