Statesboro High School gets to turn back the clock this week when they take a trip to Sylvania and play Screven County at 7:30.
Back in the days of 25 cent gas, this game was an annual tradition. From 1950 to 1975, Statesboro and Screven duked it out every year in a battle of neighboring counties. The rivalry would continue for stretches in the 80’s, 90’s and even in the 2000’s -- but for the entire Statesboro-Screven series, “rivalry” may be too kind a word.
Statesboro won 28 of those 38 meetings between 1950 and 2007, with Screven’s last win coming in 2003. The two sides haven’t played since the Bush Administration, but it’s no secret the tables have turned when it comes to the success of these programs.
For Statesboro, one of the winningest programs in Georgia High School history has taken a backwards slide the past two years. Back-to-back 2-8 seasons have now been followed by an 0-2 start in 2016, where the Blue Devil’s have taken leads into the fourth quarter but have been outscored 36-8.
Just 30 minutes northeast, Screven has enjoyed great success under head coach Ron Duncan. The Gamecocks have posted ten-win seasons in three of the past four years and are looking to add another this year. Screven is 1-1 so far this season, with their loss coming in a bizarre game against Bluffton High School (SC) in the final seconds of the Erk Russell Classic.
“Their recent success is where we want to get back to,” said Statesboro head coach Steve Pennington. “Playing the caliber of opponent like this will help us achieve that.”
Statesboro is looking to get back to the days of old, and a win against Screven could be what catapults that momentum in 2016. But that’s a task much easier said than done, as Screven boasts some of the best talent Duncan’s had in his Gamecock tenure. It all starts with their all-state defensive tackle and fullback: CJ Wright.
Wright carries the label of “freak” as a junior who can bench well over 350 and run a sub 5.0 40 yard dash at 285 pounds. So far this season he’s averaged 6.6 yards a carry on 21 rushes and has been a menace in the middle for both teams he’s faced. He’ll be the focus of every team’s game plan, and that’s no different for Statesboro this week.
“So long as we tackle him low, we can take him down,” said tight end Connor McDavid. “I don’t care how big you are, if you take out the legs anyone can fall.”
Wright’s play on defense still doesn’t outshine his comrades on that side of the ball. Defensive end Kendrick Cox is having a monster start to his junior season with six tackles for loss against Bluffton and a pick-six against Wade Hampton. Middle linebacker Richmond Whitfield leads the team in tackles and is a sound leader for the unit -- never letting the Gamecocks be out of position while he’s on the field.
“They are absolutely as good as advertised,” Pennington said. “Coach Duncan and his staff have that program headed in the right direction.”
This creates many issues for Statesboro’s offense, which while decently efficient through two games have yet to generate the explosive plays to bring the unit to the next level. The team is only averaging 3.2 yards a carry, many of those carries coming on first and second down. This has consistently put Statesboro in long down-and-distance situations, forcing them to try and come up with big plays that have yet to come to fruition.
“We’ve got to be patient on offense,” Pennington said. “It’s imperative we can get consistent positive yardage to keep ourselves out of those long down-and-distances.”
What’s been keeping Statesboro in their past two games have been a superb special teams unit and an overachieving defense. Statesboro have been able to consistently put teams in less than favorable field position with touchbacks on kickoffs and well-placed punts, forcing opposing offenses to work a longer field.
“I don’t think our confidence is any less than what it was at the beginning of the year,” said linebacker Hunter Deal. “I think we’ve learned a lot from the past two weeks.” Delete - Merge Up
The problem is while Statesboro has been able to get teams to stall out once they enter Blue Devil territory, it’s the explosive 10 plus yard plays that start to open up near the end of games that have killed Statesboro. Those big plays have come in the shoulders of dual threat quarterbacks like Burke County’s Damri Kelly and Liberty County’s Jaalon Frazier -- and Statesboro will see another mobile threat in the form of Screven’s Armani Bunbury.
Through the air, Bunbury hasn’t been the most accurate passer (43.8 completion percentage, 2 interceptions) but has made is completions count for big gains (7.6 yards an attempt). His favorite target has been the uber-athletic Jamari Tankersley, who’s amassed 173 receiving yards on just eight catches with three touchdowns.
But what makes Bunbury especially dangerous is his ability to be an efficient runner. Against Bluffton, six of his 14 runs went for at least five yards -- while going on to average 5.1 yards a carry. Bunbury’s knowledge of how to run the I-option makes Screven even more difficult to defend, as Pennington knows assignment football will be key for a Statesboro win.
“With their multiple formations, we must be disciplined in our assignments,” Pennington said. “If we make any mistakes, they have the players to take advantage of it.”