Everything about Friday night's game for the Upson-Lee Knights seemed to be just like last year when the Knights beat Statesboro in the first round of the state playoffs 14-6, even the first half of the game.
Just like last year, the Knights had to travel to Statesboro for the first round of the state playoffs. Just like last year Statesboro scored first but missed the extra point. Just like last year Upson-Lee's first lead of the game was 7-6. But that's where this year's story begins to differ from that of a year ago.
The first half of Friday night's game was almost identical to last year's state playoff opener, and the Knights were feeling good about themselves. But there are two halves in a football game and the Blue Devils were able to take full advantage of the second half as they scored 21 unanswered points and avenged last year's first round loss to the Knights with a 28-7 win Friday night.
"We didn't play well enough to win the game, but our kids gave it a great effort," Upson-Lee head coach Mike Majors said after Friday night's loss which ended the Knights' season. "It's tough to play a team as good as Statesboro on the road two years in a row and win both of them."
Things didn't look good for the Knights early as the Upson-Lee offense struggled to move the ball on its first three possessions. But Statesboro wasn't having much success either.
After being forced to punt on their first two possessions of the game, the Blue Devils' offense got things going on their third possession of the game and was able to grab the first lead of the ball game. Statesboro's Travis Roberts scored on a one-yard run with 10:13 left in the second quarter to give the Blue Devils a 6-0 lead. The PAT failed, as the Knights found themselves in the same situation as last year.
With Statesboro grabbing the early lead, the Knights' offense answered on their ensuing drive. The Knights' ate up just under 10 minutes of the clock on their fourth possession and was able to grab a 7-6 lead going into halftime.
But the Knights' scoring drive wasn't a walk in the park.
The Knights' offense faced a fourth-and-two with just over a minute left in the first half, but instead of kicking a field goal the Knights' coaching staff chose to go for it, and it paid off. Upson-Lee quarterback DeMarcus Snipes picked up four yards on the fourth down and gave the Knights new life. Three plays later Snipes had to use his legs again.
Snipes gave the Knights their first lead of the game three plays after the fourth down conversion as he scrambled for a seven-yard touchdown run with 50 seconds left in the first half.
"Those two plays by DeMarcus were big plays for us in the first half," Coach Majors said. "Both of those plays were supposed to be passing plays and he just didn't give the routes enough time to develop. We had our receiver open on both of them, but we can't argue with the result. DeMarcus is a young kid making just his third start of his career and he did what he could to help the team on those two plays. He is a good enough athlete to pull the ball down and make something happen with his feet and that's exactly what he did."
Upson-Lee kicker Cam Hopkins added the PAT as the Knights grabbed a 7-6 lead at halftime.
"We felt good going into halftime," Coach Majors said. "The kids played hard in the first half and we had a big 10-minute drive to end the half and that gave us all the momentum. We were right where we wanted to be."
But the game, that seemed to be heading in the Knights' favor for the second straight year, took a turn in the Blue Devils' favor in the second half and the Knights' weren't able to get back in the game.
Field position and the Knights' lack of offensive production swung the momentum early in the second half and Statesboro was able to take full advantage.
The Upson-Lee defense forced Statesboro to punt on its first possession of the second half, but not before gaining a first down and swinging the battle of field position in their favor. The Statesboro punt was downed on the Upson-Lee 13-yard line and the Knights' offense was called upon to move the ball out of the shadows of their own endzone. But Statesboro's defense was up to the challenge, and the game was never the same.
Upson-Lee was forced to punt on their first drive of the second half and thanks to the bad field position Statesboro received the ball in Upson-Lee territory and made the most out of the situation.
"That was the turning point in the ball game," Coach Majors said of the swing in field position early in the second half. "The key to the whole ball game was field position. Our defense was having to defend a short field every possession in the second half, and that's tough to do against a team like Statesboro. Anytime our offense was on the field in the second half, it was deep in our own territory. We weren't able to move the ball enough on offense to change field position and we didn't give our defense much of a break. They were on the field a lot in the second half."
Statesboro regained the lead late in the third quarter as their quarterback David Cone completed a 14-yard touchdown pass to Charles Rock with 4:04 left in the quarter. They were able to add the two-point conversion to take a 14-7 lead.
The Upson-Lee offense didn't have an answer this time. Statesboro's special teams and defense kept the Knights pinned deep in their own territory the entire second half, as the Knights' defense kept having to defend a short field against the powerful Statesboro running attack.
Statesboro extended their lead early in the fourth quarter as Tavius Roberts scored on a one-yard run with 11:06 left in the game.
If the Knights had any thoughts of a come-back win, Statesboro all but slammed the door on those ideas midway through the fourth quarter as Cone scored on an eight-yard bootleg to give the Devils the 28-7 lead with just 5:56 left in the game.
Statesboro's defense held the Knights to only three first downs in the second half and Snipes had trouble finding open receivers in the Blue Devils secondary. Upson-Lee running back Antroun McDaniel, who had rushed for just under 100 yards in the first half, also had trouble finding running room in the second half as the Blue Devils shutout the Knights' offense in the second half.
"We just couldn't get anything going in the second half," Coach Majors said. "Offensively we never got our passing game going and that just put pressure on our running game. We were able to run the ball at times, but you have to be able to compliment the running game with some passes and we just couldn't get into a rhythm in our passing game. You have to give Statesboro some credit. They came out and executed in the second half and we didn't."
Offensively the Knights were held in check. McDaniel, who had over 1,000 yards on the season, picked up just 93 yards rushing in his last game as a Knight. Sophomore running back Jesse Garmon followed with 25 yards rushing while Robert Brownlee and Snipes picked up 12 yards rushing each.
"Antroun has been a good running back for us for three years," Coach Majors said of his leading rusher. "He has been our work horse for three years and he played hard again tonight. We just weren't able to make enough things happen tonight."
The Knights' air attack, which led the region this year, was also held to mediocre numbers as Snipes struggled to find open receivers all night, in what was just the third start of his career and his first playoff game. Snipes completed four passes for 30 yards and one interception. Derrell Hillman had two catches for 28 yards while Brownlee had one catch for four yards and McDaniel had one catch for negative-two yards.
Defensively the Knights held Statesboro's powerful running game in check for most of the game, but gave up a few big running plays in the second half that the Blue Devils used to break the game open. The Knights' defense was forced to play well over 17 minutes in the second half as the Knights' offense struggled to pick up first downs. Statesboro picked up 232 yards rushing and 41 yards passing in the win.
"Our defense played a lot of minutes in the second half, and they were playing on our side of the field a lot," Coach Majors said. "We did a really good job of slowing Statesboro down in the first half, but they were out on the field too much in the second half."
Friday night's loss was a lot more than just a loss to the Upson-Lee seniors, it was their last game as a high school football player and in most cases their life.
"These seniors have been a big part of this program," Coach Majors said. "Going into this season one of my questions was how would this senior class respond. We lost a lot of quality seniors off of last year's team and we were unsure how this group of seniors would step up, but they did a really good job. I have to give this senior class a lot of credit for the year we had this year. They did a good job of leading this team to one of the best regular seasons Upson-Lee has ever had and into the playoffs."