Unfortunately for the Wolves, that would all unravel in the final 15 minutes of the Gulf South Conference affair at Grisham Stadium, as the game - not to mention their 17-10 lead - spiraled out of control and turned into a 37-17 final marred by missed opportunities and frustration.
In a battle tainted by unsportsmanlike conduct and personal foul penalties - mostly from a very undisciplined Henderson State team - the Wolves (1-4, 0-2 GSC) had their chances.
The Reddies (3-2, 2-1 GSC), who were part of an ugly brawl with Delta State just two weeks ago at the end of their 9-7 conference loss - resulting in the head coaches from both schools being suspended a game - didn’t seem to learn much from that incident, as they racked up 159 penalty yards on 16 infractions, mostly of the aforementioned variety.
Reddies coach Scott Maxfield wasn’t there to witness this display, as he was home serving his 1-game suspension listening via radio.
Still, West Georgia wasn’t able to take advantage of all the flagrancy from Henderson State due to some of its own undoings.
After the West Georgia allowed just a field goal in the opening three quarters - the Reddies other early score came on a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown by return specialist Greg Godfrey - things began to fall apart in the final quarter.
Henderson State tied the game at 17-17 with a quarterback keeper from Garrett Manning on the opening play of the fourth quarter, which capped a 9-play, 32-yard drive that began late in the third.
On the ensuing possession, West Georgia would drive to midfield where a questionable spot from the officials on a Keats Baldwin completion to wideout Patrick Higgins on a third down play left the Wolves staring at a 4th-and-2 situation at the Henderson State 49-yard line.
West Georgia coach Mike Ledford rolled the dice and went for it despite the solid play from his defense up to that point. But Baldwin’s keeper came up just inches short of the first down marker, forcing a turnover on downs.
That proved to be the major momentum swing.
On the very next play, the Wolves were whistled for a personal foul penalty of their own, moving the Reddies up to the West Georgia 27-yard line.
Two plays later, the Reddies other quarterback in their two-man platoon, Roch Charpentier, connected on a 25-yard touchdown pass to Godfrey, making it a 24-17 ball game following the extra point at the 10:59 mark of the fourth.
Now trailing for the first time since the second quarter, the Wolves were looking troubled after Baldwin was sacked on a 3rd-and-4 play on their next drive.
On the play, though, the Reddies picked up another personal foul. Before the next play had even gone by, they were whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct to boot, turning a 4th-and-long situation deep in West Georgia territory into a 1st-and-10 at the Henderson State 32.
The Wolves did little to help themselves, however, getting flagged for a false start, followed by back-to-back sacks on Baldwin and an incomplete pass.
By now, the line of scrimmage was all the way back to the Reddies’ 48, where West Georgia was forced to punt.
Ledford said that wasted drive came at a crucial moment in the game in order for the Wolves to have a chance.
“We had an opportunity there, we had some momentum,” Ledford said. “They had a couple penalties and we got the ball down in their territory and then we just self-destructed. We did some dumb things and we were not able to overcome it. And those are the little things that we preach about all the time that we just have to learn to do on a regular basis.”
Henderson State followed it up with an 8-play drive capped off by Bernard Palmer’s 10-yard touchdown run, pushing the lead to 31-17.
Following a third Baldwin interception, the Reddies tacked on another touchdown on a 4-yard run from Palmer, pushing the Henderson State lead to 20 at the 3:09 mark of the fourth.
And despite what the final score read in the end, Ledford was proud of his defense following the game. It allowed just 158 yards of total offense up until the fourth quarter.
“They really stood up and played some defense the way they’re capable of playing,” he said. “They were flying around to the football. They were making plays. They were doing some coverage sacks. They were getting free and putting pressure on the quarterback. And, you know, that’s something we haven’t had in a couple weeks.”
Palmer led Henderson State with 95 yards and two rushing touchdowns on 25 carries, while Joey Harris, who has been the feature back due to James Kennebrew’s hand injury, led West Georgia with 22 yards on the ground. West Georgia, who will likely be without Kennebrew’s services for a month, had a net of just 27 yards on the ground.
Baldwin completed 17-of-36 pass attempts for 185 yards with a touchdown and three picks. He was also sacked three times. Jimmy Howard had five receptions for 83 yards and a touchdown for West Georgia.
And while this loss proved more frustrating than most given the opportunities the Wolves had to win it, Ledford still isn’t overly discouraged at this point in the year.
“They battled their fannies off and there was a little span right there that we got lackluster and started making too many mistakes and shooting ourselves in the foot,” Ledford said. “But they battled their butts off and I’m awful proud of them.
“This is still a great group of young men and I’m very, very proud of them. I’m disappointed in the loss. This football wasn’t that kind of a scoring football game (as the final score), although it ended up being one.”