Statesboro had already proved that its state ranking — fifth in the latest Georgia Sports Writers Association Class AAAA poll –—was deserved with a win over fellow top-10 school Burke County back in September. Last week, the intensity was ramped up a notch as sub-region play began for the Blue Devils.
Once again, Statesboro came through with flying colors.
Facing a Liberty County team with several highly touted prospects and in front of a loud road crowd excited for the Panthers’ first 6-0 start in school history, the Devils showed their poise. Statesboro neutralized the Panthers’ star power and looked very much the part of the team in this rivalry that is used to winning big games.
Statesboro never trailed and came up with two turnovers to quell Liberty’s attempts at a late rally. The win puts the Devils on the right track, but there is still plenty to do as two more sub-region games remain before a Region 3-AAAA play-in and a possible shot at the region championship.
Throughout the 2013 season, much has been made of the Devils’ suddenly potent passing attack.
Quarterback Colin Chance has been efficient and effective in his second year at the helm of the offense. At the edge of the formation, senior receiver Joe Corless has become the big play threat downfield that Statesboro hasn’t seen in a long time.
Corless caught one pass against Liberty County and Chance was 3-of-5 through the air, but the Devils’ latest win came courtesy of a punishing ground game that has been the team’s calling card for over a decade.
“We definitely know that we’ve got the ability to make plays in the passing game,” SHS coach Steve Pennington said. “At the same time, Liberty has some big playmakers in the secondary. We wanted to control the pace and limit (Liberty’s) ability to make big plays.”
Pennington credited the offensive line with being able to execute the game plan. Leading 17-7 in the fourth quarter, the Devils didn’t leave the running game as they pounded out five first downs and ran off nearly half of the final period before scoring the clinching touchdown with 1:22 to play.
Defense on the spot again
Once again, the Statesboro defensive unit seems to have a knack for saving its biggest plays for just the right time.
Twice in the second half, the Panthers had a chance to chip away at their deficit after forcing Statesboro to punt. Both times, the Devils swung the momentum.
Late in the third quarter, Liberty County tried to catch the Devils napping with some trickery. Richard Lacounte took what looked to be an end around, but then fired downfield to a streaking receiver. Senior defensive back Josh Smith read the play from the start and picked off the deep ball inside the SHS 20.
Down to its final chance, Liberty drove all the way to the Devils’ 17 midway through the fourth quarter. Panthers star linebacker Raekwon McMilan had entered the game at running back and quickly got his team down the field, but Anthony Gore stuffed a run on 3rd-and-1. Forced to go for it on fourth down, Liberty fumbled a toss and Tim Key dove on the ball to hand possession back to Statesboro.
“We really made some big plays when we had to,” Pennington said. “We knew that just getting a lead wouldn’t be enough. Liberty fought hard all night. I give credit to our guys. We were just a little more physical.”
A quick pit stop
The win over Liberty County keeps Statesboro in control of its own destiny as far as a region championship and a state playoff appearance is concerned. The Devils will have to carry that momentum for a couple of weeks as they have a bye this Friday.
When the Devils get back under the lights, the situation will be clear. Wins against South Effingham and Wayne County will guarantee a state playoff berth and a first round home game. It will also pit the Devils against the North sub-region champion — likely to be Burke County — for the Region 3-AAAA title.
A loss against South Effingham or Wayne would make things a lot more complicated. The Devils would likely lose a shot at playing for the region title and, if that is the case, would have to take on a North sub-region team in the final week of the regular season for the right to move on to the state playoffs.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.
Devils notch huge win, still have plenty of work to do