BAXLEY — Tupac Lanier racked up a season high 82 yards rushing but it still wasn’t enough for Statesboro to knock off Appling County Friday night.
With 1:09 left following a turnover on downs inside the Appling County 15 yard line, the game seemed all but wrapped up once again for Statesboro. The Blue Devil’s had overcome a 14-0 halftime deficit just to get back to the 21-14 score that hung over their heads.
All Appling had to do was run out the clock and the game was over. With star quarterback Keelan Crosby averaging 9.1 yards a carry — it seemed destined that he’d be the one to end the game on a couple of big runs.
However, the football gods had different ideas.
“Adversity has stared us in the face not just every week but every day,” said head coach Steve Pennington. “We just continue to battle through it every time.”
Crosby hit a 20-yard run on the opening play to seemingly ice the game, but a holding call brought the Pirates back to the Appling 13 for a 1st-and-20. Following a one-yard loss to set up 2nd-and-21, Crosby lost his exchange on a wide receiver sweep in front of the QB, dropping the ball to the ground and allowing Statesboro to pick it up.
All of a sudden Statesboro was staring down the barrell of their first win in 2016 — all the Blue Devils had to do was punch it in from 10 yards with a minute left to possibly win the game.
Tyler Gordon got the drive rolling with a four yard run to set up Statesboro at the six, but a false start penalty pushed the Blue Devil’s back to the 11 the next play. On 2nd-and-11 Lanier was dropped for a nine-yard loss trying to avoid multiple defenders in the backfield, forcing Statesboro to call their final timeout with 32 seconds left.
Then on 3rd-and-20, Statesboro ran a five-yard, off-tackle run by Malik Prowell who couldn’t get out of bounds to stop the clock. Statesboro rushed back to the line and was able to get set with six seconds left on the clock. Lanier heaved a fade to the corner of the endzone to Wright Rockett that landed out of bounds — ending the game 21-14.
“I’m as proud right now as if the score were in our favor,” Pennington said. “What we have to understand is sometimes you have to measure the value of heart and this team has shown that resilancy.”
Statesboro fought hard after being drug around by Appling earlier in the game. The Blue Devil’s were only averaging 1.6 yards a play to Appling’s 7.4 in the first half, but adjustments by the Statesboro coaching staff jolted the Blue Devil’s in the second half.
Statesboro opened the second half with a four-play, 15-yard drive that ended in a Caleb Dowden punt — but Japeth Morri muffed the catch on the receiving end, allowing Statesboro to recover at the Appling 15 to give Statesboro their third drive in a row going back to the first half.
What followed the turnover was a gutsy, six-play, 15-yard drive that ended in a Lanier quarterback sneak from the one. Prowell converted a key 4th-and-1 earlier in the drive to keep the scoring chance alive.
“Our offense helped our defense tonight,” Pennington said. “They moved the football very well and it kept the ball away from their offense.”
Now 14-7, Statesboro was back on defense facing an Appling offense that had been gouging then all first half. Appling continued to do so, ripping off runs of 12, 11 and 11 yards to get down to the Statesboro 44 —but dropped the ball on what was supposed to be a screen pass the next play.
While a close call, the officials determined the ball was a lateral and not a forward pass — allowing Hunter Deal to fall on the ball and give Statesboro possession right back.
The two teams traded punts on their next drives, giving Statesboro the ball at the Appling 49 following a shanked 24 yard kick by Price Eason. Now in the fourth quarter, Lanier finally took the stage and shined like he hadn’t all season.
“He rallied around everyone tonight,” Pennington said. “We all pulled together and that’s what mattered.”
Lanier hit runs of 7, 15 and 15 to bring Statesboro down to the Appling 14 — carrying multiple defenders on the final 15-yard run. A play later after a false start penalty, Lanier hit the edge to run untouched to the endzone to tie the game at 14 all.
This was now the fourth game this season Statesboro either was tied or had a lead in the fourth quarter. With momentum on their side, Caleb Dowden pinned Appling back on their own nine yard line after being helped out by a personal foul by Appling — once again giving Statesboro a field position advantage.
But the kick never mattered. Appling evaporated the Statesboro momentum with a 10-play, 91-yard drive where the Pirates hit runs of 15, 10, 10 and 10 to set up a 32 yard touchdown pass from Crosby to Devon Moore to put Appling up 21-14 with 6:59 left in the game.
“Those dog-gone big plays kept killing us,” Pennington said. “We prevented them a little bit more in the second half and tackled a bit better too.”
The first half couldn’t have gone worse for Statesboro. Three of their five drives in the first half went three-and-out, and their biggest play was a 15-yard roughing the kicker penalty on the final drive of the first half.
This was all happening while Crosby ran wild over the Statesboro defense. Crosby accounted for 186 of Applings 192 first half yardage with a 59 yard run to score his first touchdown of the game in the second quarter.
For Statesboro, Lanier would finish with 86 total yards and two scores while running for 5.5 yards a carry, also a season high for the junior. Drayton Marsh added 34 rushing yards on six carries as well.
“I know people want to have a ‘W’ in the win column,” Pennington said. “But it didn’t happen. What you saw tonight on this field was young men giving every ounce they had.”
Statesboro (0-5) will come back to Womack Field next week, hoping to carry their momentum with them from this second half to face Tattnall County (2-2) at 7:30.