With the opportunity to not only lock up a berth in the NCAA Division II Playoffs, but secure an opening-round home game, the University of West Georgia football team's postseason hopes took a major hit on Saturday afternoon.
Racing out to a 16-0 lead through one quarter of play, the No. 24 Wolves let one slip away in a 34-29 setback to West Florida to sour Senior Day at University Stadium and potentially end the 2017 campaign on the outside looking in of the playoff picture.
Entering the contest at No. 4 in the Super Region Two rankings, the Wolves (8-3, 5-3 Gulf South Conference) needed a lot of help after falling to the Argonauts (7-3, 5-3), who were No. 10 in the region, and the outcomes elsewhere weren't falling in their favor Saturday evening.
But first-year UWG head coach David Dean was more frustrated that his squad didn't seal the deal on its own terms when given the chance.
"They're disappointed. I know our seniors are disappointed. I'm disappointed for our seniors that they played their last regular-season game in that stadium, that beautiful stadium, and don't come away with a victory," Dean said.
The Division II playoff field will be announced today at 5 p.m., and even though there's an outside chance the Wolves could sneak in, it's a long shot at this point.
Through 15 minutes of Saturday's showdown, it looked as though the Wolves were going to run away with the playoff-clinching victory. But to the Argos' credit, they didn't fold after falling behind 16-0.
The first three drives of the game netted 199 yards of total offense and each possession resulted in points for West Georgia, but the well went dry from there as the offense mustered just 19 yards on 11 plays on two second-quarter possessions. The Argonauts, meanwhile, found their footing and pulled within 16-14 by the break.
After tallying a total of 30 yards in the first quarter, West Florida put together back-to-back scoring drives on its final two possessions of the half, needing just five plays to go 39 yards and scoring on a 12-yard Mike Beaudry touchdown pass to Ka'Ron Ashley with 8:20 remaining in the half. In the closing minutes, the visitors used a nine-play, 71-yard drive that was capped by a tremendous one-handed snag in the corner of the end zone by Rodney Coates for a seven-yard touchdown with 21 ticks left in the half.
UWG built its lead by dominating the first quarter of play, scoring on the first play from scrimmage on a 72-yard pass from Willie Candler to DeNiko Carter, but a missed PAT on a high snap left it 6-0.
Following an Argonaut punt, the Wolves drove 77 yards on 11 plays and stretched the lead to 9-0 on a 20-yard Trey Wiggins field goal.
West Georgia closed the quarter with a nine-play, 73-yard drive that culminated in a 22-yard touchdown run by Mikell Lands-Davis as time expired in the period.
But UWF seized the momentum in the second quarter and battled back into the game. And when momentum is on your side, instances like what unfolded early in the third quarter seem go your way.
A Candler fumble on the first UWG possession of the second half led to the first lead of the afternoon for the visitors on a freakish play when Beaudry's pass into the end zone ricochet off UWG safety Rishad Goode and right into the arms of Argo tight end Austin Blake-Smith, turning what appeared to be an interception into a score for the visitors.
Dean noted that while it was an unfortunate turn of events, it's something you have to overcome during the course of a 60-minute ballgame.
"That's crazy. We make a great play and we've got a guy right there to make the interception and it pops up and then it hits our player on the foot and it goes right to them. You know, it was their day. Unfortunately, the luck was with them. They made that play there that gave them the lead," Dean said. "But you can't let that bother you. You've got to throw that behind. Again, we had our opportunities early and we let them back in the ballgame. I say let them back in the ballgame, but they got back in the ballgame. It wasn't like they are not a good football team. They are. I said that leading into this week that they're probably the hottest team in our conference right now."
With UWF ahead 21-16, the Wolves gambled on their next possession by attempting a fake punt near midfield with a direct snap to Noah Brown, but the Bremen High School product wasn't able to garner the first down, turning the ball over on downs and setting up a 26-yard Austin Williams field goal to put UWF up 24-16 with 6:47 remaining in the third quarter.
Desperately needing a score, the Wolves got a spark in the form of a 40-yard touchdown strike from Candler to Shaq Roland to creep back within a point at 24-23.
Williams tacked on a 30-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter to make it a four-point game and UWF really put the pressure on the Wolves on an eight-yard touchdown pass from Beaudry to Blake-Smith with 6:47 left in the game for the 11-point margin.
On the ensuing possession, West Georgia had a pass interference call on fourth-and-17 keep the drive alive and Candler found Shannon Smith on fourth-and-six to eventually set up a seven-yard touchdown pass to Taylor Turner. The two-point conversion was no good, making it a 34-29 contest with 2:24 to go.
With all three timeouts remaining, the Wolves elected to kick it deep rather than go for an onside kick, and the defense forced a punt with just over 20 seconds left on the clock.
UWG nearly had a second miraculous play in as many weeks when J.J. Jones fielded the punt and darted down the home sidelines before being tackled inside the 5-yard line, but the official ruled he stepped out of bounds at the UWF 41 with 15 seconds left.
After an incomplete pass, Candler's hail mary heave went out of the back of the end zone, ending the game and possibly the season for UWG.
"What a great effort by J.J. That foot just slipped out of bounds on the return. Otherwise, we're fixing to have the ball on about the 2 or 3-yard line to win the game," Dean said. "Again, that's the fight in our kids. It was a great effort by them. It was just the second quarter and third quarter. If we played better in those two quarters, it's a different ballgame."
Candler was 19-of-27 for 295 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, but he was sacked five times. And after rushing for 105 yards on 14 carries in the first quarter, the Wolves finished the game with a net of 103 rushing yards on 35 attempts. Defensively, Cam Magee led the charge with 14 tackles, including one for a loss.
Dean stressed how it wasn't all on the offensive line for the lack of production in the ground attack over the final three quarters, noting how the offense got away from what was working early in the game and didn't handle the UWF defensive adjustments very well.
"They started getting off blocks and I think we got a little bit impatient on some things. We were trying to do too much running the ball instead of reading our keys and hitting holes. We were trying to bounce and do too much," Dean said. "We've just got to stick with our game plan and I think a lot of that had to do with us getting up early and we felt like we were in control of the game and we got away from what we do best."
And now as the Wolves await their postseason fate, Dean said whether the campaign continues or officially ends Sunday, he is proud of everything this group has achieved in 2017.
"It's always tough when it's over. Whether you win it all or whether you don't, knowing that you've played that last game is very, very difficult. Hopefully, it's not our last game. We've got some seniors in there that still got some things they want to do," Dean said. "I think we grew together as a football team. (Saturday) we just did not finish off what we intended to do and what we sat in here in August and talked about what we wanted to do as a football team. We didn't do it (Saturday), and that's very, very disappointing."