The fourth quarter came back to haunt Statesboro High School again this week, as a 15-point swing allowed Liberty County to beat the Blue Devil’s 21-7 on Saturday morning.
Eerily similar to last week’s 28-17 loss to Burke County, Statesboro had a lead going into the fourth quarter -- this time 7-6 instead of 9-6. But also similar to last week, Liberty County was in the midst of a long drive into Blue Devil territory.
Big run after big run pushed the Panthers down the field, converting two 3rd downs in the process. On the third 3rd down of the drive, Liberty County quarterback Jaalen Frazier stood tough in the pocket and delivered a strike to a wide-open Eli Polite in the middle of the field -- who would turn around and drag three Statesboro defenders with him into the endzone for the lead.
“Even though we held on, I think what we need to take away from this game is we need to play better defense,” Statesboro head coach Steve Pennington. “We head great opportunities to get off the field in long-yardage situations and couldn’t do it.”
Following the two-point conversion, Statesboro stood behind 14-7 but still very much in the game. But Statesboro’s run-first attack once again struggled to generate any big plays, only hitting two runs of over 10 yards. Consecutive three and outs would give Liberty the ball back with just over five minutes to play.
“Their line kept standing up high,” said Tupac Lanier. “So we could hit a play here and there, but that defense had some ballhawks.”
What followed was a back-breaking, nine-play drive that included three more 3rd down conversions, cumulating in a 15-yard run by Frazier to close the door on Statesboro with just over two minutes to play. Statesboro had one more drive that went inside the Liberty County 40, but it ended in another turnover on downs -- allowing Liberty County to run out the clock and finish the game.
“They did a great job on defense,” said Jeremy Mincy, the Statesboro alum who was on hand to watch following his recent NFL retirement. “They looked physically tough, but they just need to be mentally tough now in order to finish things out.”
Statesboro would hold its own on defense throughout the first half. Liberty County’s first three drives went inside the Statesboro 40, but while Blue Devil defense bent it never completely broke. The first drive by Liberty was stalled by a holding penalty, then following two incompletions were forced to punt.
The next trip inside the 40 saw Liberty County humming along after a big fourth down conversion from midfield. Lined up at the Statesboro 38, Frazier stepped back to pass and looked deep to Willie Roberts, but the ball was just tipped off his hands and into the leaping arms of Julian Harrison for Statesboro’s first interceptions on the year.
“I was in position for that play, so I have to thank the coaches for that one,” Harrison said. “It felt even better coming against a good team.”
Later in the second quarter, Liberty looked to be stopped at their own 40 yard line and were set to punt the ball away on 4th and 14. Polite, in at punter, caught a low snap and was quickly swarmed by a host of Blue Devils as the play looked to be a bust.
Instead, Polite went left, then right, then left again around to the edge of the field. With no contain on the punt return team, Polite skirted down the sideline past Statesboro’s pursuit all the way to the 16-yard line. What had been a muffed punt and potential great field position for Statesboro had flipped to a redzone possession for Liberty County in a matter of seconds.
“We never let Richard LeCounte hurt us on special teams,” Pennington said. “But that allowed them to get other players involved, and that cost us.”
But the Statesboro defense continued to hold strong, forcing a 4th and 12. After a timeout of deliberation, Liberty County broke out a reverse pass with LeCounte throwing to a wide open Dylan Stewart. However the future Georgia Bulldog’s pass was well overthrown, forcing a turnover on downs.
One of Statesboro’s best scoring chances in the first half came two drives later, when Liberty County had shanked a punt inside their own 20 to set up the Blue Devil’s with golden field position. On a third and long, Davis Wiggins was rolling to his right with Panthers at his backside -- forcing him to throw a lob ball to Connor McBride.
But McBride was in double coverage, and the ball was picked off by Sam Roberts with just over two minutes left to play in the half. Liberty would then make their way down to the 36 yard line, and LeCounte made it known why he’s one of the best high school players in the country with a 64 yard touchdown reception to put the Panthers up 6-0 right before halftime.
“We were subbing guys in and out while they were set,” Harrison said “We didn’t get set and it cost us.”
Statesboro’s only score came with around five minutes left in the third quarter following a Liberty County three and out. A 11-yard run from Wiggins would set up a big pass to to Tyler Gordon, taking the Blue Devil’s down inside the five. Two plays later Lanier would punch it in from three yards for 7-6 lead.
“Offensively I was very proud of the way we responded in the first half,” Pennington said. “We had those two good drives to start the second half, but in the end the positive is we had a chance. It will come eventually.”
Statesboro (0-2) now has a shorter recovery time thanks to Tropical Storm Hermine, and will play Screven County (2-0) in Sylvania next Friday at 7:30 p.m.