After losing its third fourth-quarter lead last week against Effingham County, Statesboro High is still looking for answers with a road trip to Appling County ahead of it.
It’s a story that’s becoming all too familiar to fans around the team: Statesboro’s defense bends but doesn’t break, the offense struggles to move the ball, the special teams flips the field and somehow, someway the Blue Devils are always hanging around opponents that may appear to be better on paper.
It happened against Burke County (4-0), Liberty County (3-0) and now Effingham County (2-2). Is it youth? Is it the quality of opponent? Head coach Steve Pennington and his staff are still trying to figure out what could be the problem with finishing these games.
“We’re still a young team,” said head coach Steve Pennington. “It’s all about a mindset.”
The hour and a half drive to Appling County will be the longest of the season so far for Statesboro, and waiting on them might be the best quarterback they’ve seen by a long shot.
Senior Keelan Crosby is doing his best Lamar Jackson impression through three games and hasn’t been slowed down since the team’s 23-20 opening loss to Vidalia.
The Vidalia loss is nothing to be ashamed of, as Vidalia has one of the best defenses you’ll find on the Class AA level. Appling has hung 41 points on Dodge County and 39 on Wayne County, all behind the extraordinary performances by Crosby.
Through three games, Crosby has 14 total touchdowns — 11 of them on the ground. He’s averaging 7.4 yards every time he touches the ball, whether it’s a run or pass. On the ground he leads the Pirates by a long shot, running for 512 of Appling’s 777 rushing yards this season and averaging 7.4 yards a carry.
“He’s an inside running threat as much as he is to scramble,” Pennington said. “They can run zone read with a back and they’ll pull guards to give him extra blockers on runs.”
Through the air, Crosby has only been marginally accurate completing 52.5 percent of his passes. But, when he completes a pass his makes it count in big chunks — averaging 7.8 yards a pass. Simply put, Crosby is the team and Appling will go as far as he does.
“He’s simply a hefty quarterback with power and speed,” Pennington said.
To make things even more difficult, Appling runs a wide-open spread unlike anything Statesboro has seen this year. Expect many five and four wide receiver sets, with many times Crosby being the only player in the backfield. For a team that struggled to tackle last week against Effingham, Statesboro will have to clean that part of their game up before they see this kind of offense.
“They have more team speed than anyone else we will see,” Pennington said. “So it is imperative that we can wrap up and finish off our tackles.”
While the offense has been light-out for Appling in 2016, their defense has been lagging behind. All three of their opponents had their best offensive games against the Pirates, as the defense has been boom-or-but all season.
Appling is a blitz-happy, “pin your ears back” kind of defense that will look for drive killing sacks and tackles for losses at the expense of giving up big plays —especially on the ground. Appling has given up almost seven yards a carry against teams with a combined record of 4-8, which bodes well for a Statesboro team who had their best rushing performance as a team last week.
“We need to control the line of scrimmage,” Pennington said. “We need to be the aggressor. What will make our play-action pass more effective is if we can establish the run.”
The barely-visible silver lining around the season-ending injury to quarterback Davis Wiggins is the potential that’s been unlocked in Tupac Lanier. The junior running back had his best rushing performance of the season last week by gaining 62 yards on 11 carries from the quarterback position.
A couple of those runs came off quarterback scrambles, where Lanier showed a surprising amount of awareness feeling his away around a tumultuous pocket. The problem was, outside of Lanier, Statesboro struggled to get a complimentary player running well as the same consistency as Lanier did. Look for Tyler Gordon and Malik Prowell to be the backs to try and fill that role.
Tonight’s game will tell a lot about how Statesboro can respond after a devastating loss last week. It will be the biggest test so far for the defense and will be the best shot for the offense to iron out their wrinkles, especially in the run game.
“Our short passing game will be critical, especially on screens,” Pennington said. “We’re not going to have a boatload of time because of the style they play.”
The result could all depend on how much more comfortable Lanier has become within the offense and if the defense has shored up their suspect tackling from last week.