Mistakes are what camp and the regular season are for. Making them in the playoffs will bring your season to an end. West Georgia made more than one and watched it’s hopes for a title run vanish as the #7 Wingate Bulldogs punch their ticket to the second round of the Division II playoffs with a 41-31 win.
“In Division 2 you go 10-2 it hurts,” said West Georgia head coach David Dean. “When you go 10-2 in Division 1 (FBS), you’re patted on the back and you’re going to a bowl game. . .a really nice bowl game. Here it hurts a whole lot worse because you didn’t finish what you wanted to do.”
It was the second loss in as many weeks for the Wolves after dropping their final regular season game to in-state and Gulf South Conference rival Valdosta.
The first-round bye is crucial at this point in the season. Nagging injuries to everyday players and those lost early in the season get another seven days of healing. “Our offensive line was not at full strength,” admitted Dean. “I just wished for our sake that we could have had a week where we could have healed and given ourselves a week off and not played the eleventh straight. It would surely have helped us down the stretch but you know it hurt us but it didn’t kill us. We were still in the games and had an opportunity to win it at some point in the game.”
Painful ankle injuries to left tackle Quentin Stanford (6’4” 312 lbs. and left guard Kijana Evans (6’5” 320 lbs.) weren’t apparent on the Wolves’ first offensive series as senior running back Devontae Jackson gashed the Bulldogs’ defense for a 60-yard touchdown. Jackson had 121 yards on 16 carries in his final game.
They did show themselves two drives later. Starting from inside the 20, the Wolves lost nine yards on a pair of sacks by the Bulldogs’ defense. Wingate defensive ends Cardell Rawlings and Cal Hanford made pocket life difficult for Wolves quarterback Willie Candler. “The defensive line did a lot of twists and they (the linebackers) did some delayed blitzes that caught us out of protection and they found a few holes,” said the junior quarterback from nearby Atlanta.
Wingate had six sacks on the day but the first two helped give the Bulldogs a jump start in momentum. The sack by Hanford forced Wolves punter Christian Ramirez behind the goal line. And as if scripted from a movie, Wingate sophomore Floyd Louallen got a good jump and blocked the punt to himself in the end zone.
It was the second score off a West Georgia turnover in 5 minutes and coincidentally enough the margin in the final score.
Two interceptions later in the first half were turned into another 10 points by the opportunistic Bulldogs. Davion Washington’s pick of Candler at the Bulldogs 25 ended a promising drive and became a 2-yard touchdown in the hands of running back Nijere Peoples. Senior safety Joe Kelly’s interception deep in Wolves territory was turned into a 46-yard McLean Robertson field goal and a 20-7 lead.
West Georgia battled back to within a field goal before the half. True freshman running back Christian Royalston gave fans a glimpse into 2019 with a 14-yard run to the red zone on his first carry of the day. The Wolves settled for a 37-yard field goal from red-shirt freshman Omar Cervantes after the Bulldogs’ defense bowed up.
Candler wouldn’t let that happen a second time. The Wolves’ defense gave the ball back to the offense after stopping the Bulldogs’ offense on fourth and one near midfield. A situational call that would foreshadow events in the fourth quarter.
With the ball back in his hands, Candler moved the offense into the red zone. This time the 2.5-year starter called his own number sprinting into the end zone from 15 yards out to close the half on a positive note.
The dog or canine fight continued after the well-deserved break with the Wolves getting the best of the Bulldogs and taking a 31-27 lead into the fourth quarter.
That new arrangement didn’t last long. Once again the Bulldogs were confronted with a fourth down decision at midfield only this time Head Coach Joe Reich opted to punt and hopefully pin the Wolves deep. It worked. The Bulldogs’ defense dropped the Wolves’ backfield for a loss of 9 yards on their first two snaps to set up a third and 19 situation that played right into Reich’s defensive plans. “If we can play great against the run and do well on first and second down and turn it into long yard situations and then let the dogs hunt kind of thing that’s a great thing for us,” explained Reich.
The Bulldogs were howling at the gate seconds later thanks to an 11-yard return by Ra’Quan Simmons and a 15-yard penalty on the Wolves. Red-shirt freshman quarterback Shaw Crocker made quick work of the short field hitting Jalen Brooks on a slant across the middle that the freshman wide receiver was able to take to the house.
Wingate’s defense continued to pound on the Wolves’ offense holding it to three and out on the subsequent drive. Reich credited the physical play of his defense for holding the Wolves’ dynamic offense in check. “To me, it was the physicality of our football team and the growing physicality,” said Reich. “As the game wore on we got more physical.”
It paid dividends following an interception and 35-yard return by Wolves safety Montrell Pardue that gave the Wolves offense the ball at the Bulldogs’ 45 with 9:28 to play.
After three plays failed to produce a first down, Coach Dean opted to go for it on fourth and five. Why try after seeing firsthand what happened after his defense stopped the Bulldogs on their fourth-and-short? Or forcing them into a back-against-the-wall situation like his team had just been in? “I felt that we had a good play that we could get the first down and we were sitting in a situation where every time they got the ball they (Wingate) ran a lot of time off the clock,” said Dean. “Obviously, it backfired and we weren’t able to get that first down and continue that drive. I felt like if we did that could be one of those deals where we could finish this game off.”
Not only did the play not pan out but the defensive stop energized the Bulldogs’ offense much like the Wolves’ defensive stop energized their offense before the end of the first half. Crocker led his team straight down the field before D McNeill spun-flipped-cartwheeled into the end zone for the final score of the game.
Wingate advances to face Lenoir Rhyne a 43-21 winner over Florida Tech at Moretz Stadium. The Bulldogs and Bears tangled in week 4 with Lenoir Rhyne coming out on top with a 31-24 win. Lenoir Rhyne is led by head coach Drew Cronic of LaGrange, Georgia who built Reinhardt College into a perennial contender in NAIA.
All photos by Jason McDonald, JM Photography for CORE360 Sports