By Josh Aubrey
Special for the Effingham Herald
SPRINGFIELD – For the second straight year, after losing its first two games, Effingham County tripped up Statesboro for its first win of the season.
Was Friday night's 24-19 victory at Rebel Field the start of something good?
The 2022 win over the Blue Devils sparked the Rebels to a seven-game winning streak, a spot in the region championship game and a No. 2 seeding at state.
"I don't like to compare year to year," ECHS coach John Ford said. "I just think (our first two opponents) Richmond Hill and Burke County teach you lessons the hard way. Hopefully, we'll keep those lessons in the front of our minds."
A stingy defense and opportunistic offense helped the Rebels (1-2) pass their third test of the season. ECHS held the Blue Devils to minus-3 yards rushing and three Statesboro turnovers gave the offense short fields to work with.
"I thought the defense played outstanding and controlled some explosive athletes," Ford said. "(Statesboro) has some players who scare you to death when they have the ball in the open field."
ECHS found offensive success with a more methodical approach – pounding the ball inside. Running backs A.J. Butts and Jayden Evans combined for 154 of the Rebels' 181 rushing yards and all three touchdowns.
Butts and Evans contributed at linebacker as well with Bryson Horton out because of an injury.
ECHS' quick start and key Statesboro turnovers provided some confidence after the season-opening losses to Richmond Hill (34-7) and Burke County (10-6).
Mason Lein's 27-yard field goal kick-started the Rebels to a 3-0 lead and ECHS recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff at the Blue Devil 30, setting up Butts' 24-yard TD run to make it 10-0.
"(Despite losing the first two games) you go back to work regardless," Ford said. "We have a young team and they're talented and when they put things together, they're pretty good."
Statesboro (1-2) marched back into ECHS' red zone, but Rebel lineman Aslem Green recovered another Blue Devil fumble.
“Once again our kids battled and played tough, but once again we have to clean up the mistakes,” said Statesboro coach Matt Dobson, whose team had five turnovers in a season-opening loss to Glynn Academy. “I’m tired of saying it but if we don’t turn the football over and don’t make mistakes on special teams, I think we win this game for sure tonight. You can’t continue to give the defense short fields and make these costly mistakes and beat a good team.”
In the second quarter, the Blue Devil defense held Effingham on a fourth and short attempt to stop a Rebel drive and Statesboro's high-powered offense struck quickly when quarterback Bruce Yawn connected with track star Kam Mikell for a 63-yard touchdown pass, cutting ECHS' lead to 10-7.
The Rebels answered with an eight-play 62-yard drive, culminated by Evans' 17-yard TD run just before the half to boost the advantage back to 10, 17-7.
Evans finished with a game-high 84 rushing yards on 12 carries.
Statesboro trimmed the lead early in the third quarter. Elijah Wells caught Yawn's pass in the flat and dashed 33 yards for a touchdown. The Devils failed to convert a two-point try to keep the score, 17-13.
But Effingham was undaunted. A fourth-and-two handoff to Butts went for 14 yards and a touchdown to up the Rebel advantage to 24-13. Butts finished with nine carries for 70 yards.
Statesboro ended the scoring with about two minutes to go when Yawn hit Raylin Grant for a 25-yard TD pass.
ECHS will be back in action Sept. 8 against Southeast Bulloch in Brooklet. The Class 4A Yellow Jackets (1-1) are coming off a bye week after opening the season with a 21-0 victory over Liberty County before falling to Statesboro 12-7 in the Erk Russell Classic.
"I know Coach (Jared) Zito and they do a great job running a split-back veer, so your defense has to be disciplined," Ford said.
(Donald Heath contributed to this story.)