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Passing game, running game, defense, special teams, and even an individual effort on one play worthy of the season-ending highlight reel had a role in Ware County’s 42-14 homecoming victory Friday night against Jenkins of Savannah in Memorial Stadium.

During halftime fesitivities, Miss xxxx xxxx was crowned 2022 homecoming queen.

The undefeated Gators celebrated rising to No. 1 in the state in most GHSA Class AAAAA polls with the win in the Region 1-AAAAA opener for both schools.

Ware County (5-0 overall, 1-0 region) visits winless Bradwell Institute (0-6, 0-1) this week. The Tigers fell 42-13 to sixth-ranked Coffee in their region opener.

The Gators passed for 212 yards, ran for 155, and had a defensive touchdown while limiting the visitors to 184 yards. They blocked two kicks leading to points and added two field goals.

Senior defensive back K.J. Baker had the game’s “SportsCenter” moment when he closed a near half-the-field lead by a Jenkins running back to keep him out of the end zone.

“A lot of positives and a few negatives we’ll work to clean up,” Ware County head coach Jason Strickland said.

Quarterback Niko Smith was 16-for-30 for 212 yards with two interceptions. The junior had 155 of the total yards in the first half against a defense stacked for the run.

“That defensive front is as good as we’ve seen,” Strickland said. “All week long we (coaches) felt like they’d be in a six-man box to take away run game and make us throw,’ Strickland said. “Niko made some really nice throws and missed some. He hit some big throws. I know he’s frustrated with the interceptions, but if you’re going to throw it, you’ll have one now and then.”

The running game, which accounted for all but one of the Gators’ touchdowns, took the lead in the second half with 131 yards. Dae’Jeaun Dennis led the way with 10 carries for 89 yards — 49 in the second half — and a score. R.J. Boyd added 62 yards and a score on eight carries while Dewayne Birden ran four times for 19 yards, all their runs coming in the second half.

“We wanted to get through the first half playing with great tempo and maybe get (Jenkins) a little winded and tired,” the coach said. “We talked to all three (Dennis, Boyd, Birden) during halftime and told them to get ready because we were going to call a lot more run plays. All three really responded.”

Jarvis Hayes and C.J. Johnson had Ware County’s other offensive touchdowns, while William Bates added field goals of 22 and 26 yards, and three conversion kicks. Brody Hall also converted an extra point.

Defensive lineman Isaiah Perry returned a fumble for a touchdown and the defense was credited with a safety when the Warriors batted a high snap from center out of the end zone.

Tyler Ferguson ran 10 times for 74 yards and scored both touchdowns for Jenkins (1-5, 0-1), which managed more than half its yardage total on its final scoring drive.

Bates, a sophomore, gave Ware County a lead it wouldn’t lose with his 22-yard field goal with 5:45 left in the first quarter. His kick ended a nine-play, 45-yard possession.

Perry added to the lead late in the quarter with his fumble return on the first play after Smith suffered his second interception. The senior came out of a pile of players with the ball on a bobble by Jenkins’ Jayaun Albert and took it home from 10 yards with 1:20 left in the opening quarter.

Ware County had its first big special teams to help push the lead to 17-0 early in the second period with a punt block. Defensive back Jaden Jones got his hand on the ball and Javontae’ Evans pulled it out of the air for a first down at the Warriors’ 19.

Three plays and a penalty later, Hayes scored on a two-yard run off a fly sweep with 10:36 left in the half. The senior wide receiver also caught three passes for 59 yards on the night.

Jenkins closed the gap at intermission on a touchdown with just 22.7 seconds left. Ferguson scored on a two-yard run over left tackle to cap a six-play, 80-yard drive highlighted by a 73-yard run from Albert up the middle on a third-and-12 play from the 18-yard line.

Albert broke the line of scrimmage with no Gator in front of him and appeared headed for a touchdown only to be run down by Baker, who seemingly came out of no where to make the stop.

“That was an unbelievable effort, but that’s who he is,” said Strickland. “He’s the most unselfish person I’ve ever met. That play didn’t surprise me. He can absolutely go (run), and he always plays with great effort.”

Jenkins used some trickery to start the second half, when Ferguson dribbled the kickoff and recovered it at the Gators’ 43. The Warriors moved to a first down at the Ware County 22, but ended up attempting a 42-yard field goal that was blocked.

Ware County would convert the play into points a few minutes later when Dennis scored on a 21-yard run up the middle with 7:41 left in the third period. His score ended a five-play, 58-yard drive that was keyed by a 21-yard screen pass from Smith to Brandon Washington, who caught eight passes for 113 yards on the night.

“What a night by (Washington),” Strickland said. “He made some big plays.”

Ware County sealed the issue with nine points in a span of 48 seconds later in the third quarter. The first points again came with the help of a special teams play.

After running down John Seidensticker, when he was slow getting off a rugby-style punt, the Gators took over on the Jenkins’ 39. Seven plays later, Johnson collected his touchdown on a one-yard run as a wildcat quarterback with 3:04 remaining.

On the second play after the kickoff at the Warriors’ 12, the snap to quarterback Troy Smith sailed over his head into the end zone where Albert batted the ball out over the end line for a safety and a 33-7 cushion with 2:16 left.

Bates tacked on his second field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter to cap the Gators’ longest drive of the night, an eight-play, 72-yard possession comprised of all running plays from Boyd and Dennis. Boyd, a sophomore, had 48 of the total on four carries.

Jenkins followed with its best drive of the game, a 13-play, 87-yard march that saw it operate from various forms of a full house backfield and no wide receivers. Ferguson ended the drive with a 33-yard run off right tackle with 4:39 left in the game.

Boyd scored his touchdown on a six-yard run in the final minute to cap a seven-play, 41-yard drive that was started by three straight runs from Birden, a junior, for 19 yards.

“They all three got it going in the second half,” Strickland said of his running back trio. “They were feeling it. They play so well of each other.”

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