Unfortunately, the Bulldogs outscored the Wolves 38-3 the remainder of the way to claim the 38-17 victory at Irwin Belk Stadium in Wingate, N.C., as five UWG turnovers proved to be the difference in this one.
Because while the final score shows a 21-point setback, the Wolves weren’t physically dominated like they were in most of their losses last season, as they had their chances even late in the game to keep this one competitive.
But four interceptions — two inside the red zone and another in Wingate territory — along with a fumble, also deep in Bulldog territory, kept the momentum from ever staying with UWG (0-1) for too long.
Second-year West Georgia coach Daryl Dickey said those are the type of things he’s spoken to his team about when it comes to learning how to win ballgames.
“We certainly could have competed with them. We should have competed with them,” Dickey said on the KISS 102.7 postgame radio show. “Like we’ve said, this team’s got to learn how to win again. We’ve got to learn what it takes to win, especially playing good football teams on the road like this. You can’t turn the ball over numerous times.”
UWG sophomore Kyle Padgett got the start at quarterback as junior signal-caller Sean Gray, along with junior defensive end Brendan Nestor, found out they would not be able to play late Friday after learning their eligibility hasn’t been certified yet for the 2009 season.
Padgett looked strong on his first series of the game, leading the Wolves on a nine-play, 80-yard scoring drive capped by a 23-yard touchdown strike to Malcolm Johnson to make it a 14-0 contest with 7:24 left in the opening quarter.
UWG scored its initial touchdown on the very first play of the game after Wingate’s Ed Doughty bobbled the opening kickoff in his own end zone and West Georgia’s Dontavious Smith pounced on it for the score.
The Wolves had a chance to build on that 14-0 lead following a Jenoris Darby interception near midfield midway through the first quarter, but Padgett was intercepted on the ensuing possession, setting up the Bulldogs’ first score of the afternoon, a 2-yard touchdown run by running back Vince Jordan, who led all rushers with 215 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries.
The Bulldogs (1-0) tied the game up at 14-14 early in the second quarter on a James Hall to Delric Ellington touchdown pass at the 10:35 mark.
After the defenses held strong the rest of the quarter, Wingate was able to claim its first lead of the afternoon with one second remaining in the half on an RP Lopez 36-yard field goal for the 17-14 advantage.
The Wolves came out in the second half with a promising drive starting from their own 29-yard line, but it ended in another Padgett interception at the goal line.
Jordan quickly made the Wolves pay with an 83-yard touchdown scamper at the 8:55 mark to make it a 24-14 contest.
UWG’s Justin Mayo gave his team a lift by returning the ensuing kickoff 52 yards to the Wingate 37-yard line, setting up an Adi Brkic 26-yard field goal to pull the Wolves within seven at 24-17.
After a defensive stand by the Wolves, Padgett threw his third interception of the game, this one deep in UWG territory, which led to a 28-yard Jordan touchdown run two plays later, putting Wingate up 31-17
After the two teams swapped punts — carrying over into the fourth quarter — West Georgia had another scoring opportunity, but Brkic missed a 29-yard field goal.
The UWG defense would stand strong again, and as the offense got into Bulldog territory, Yusuf Holloway coughed up the ball at the end of a 25-yard run, marking the fourth UWG turnover of the game and yet another missed scoring opportunity.
The final UWG turnover came with just 29 seconds left in the game when the Wolves were trying to cut the lead down to seven points, but Padgett was picked off on the Wingate 3-yard line. Robert Fletcher returned it 97 yards to paydirt, which made the final score look a little worse than it should have by game’s end.
“We just made the mistakes at the wrong time,” Dickey said.
Padgett completed 16-of-27 pass attempts for 171 yards and a touchdown with four interceptions, while Holloway led the ground attack, finishing with 89 yards on 14 carries.
The Wolves finished with 156 yards rushing, a step in the right direction from the nonexistent running game they had last season, although Dickey obviously still wants more production from this department.
And while Jordan had a career day running the ball, the UWG defense played quite well at times, too.
West Georgia’s Jeremy Cook (10 tackles, sack) and Juan Pickett (7 tackles) had solid efforts, as the Wolves yielded just 135 yards through the air.
And while it wasn’t a victory, Dickey saw some positive steps in the opener.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I’m proud of these young men. They’ve been through a lot,” Dickey said. “Especially in this preseason with all the speculation about who’s going to be able to do what and all that. I mean, we don’t find things out until we’re on the bus Friday afternoon.”
With that said, the second-year coach found quite a bit to critique, as well. All those little things that can mean the difference between winning ballgames and losing them.
“We got big gains called back by penalties that are careless penalties,” Dickey said. “We’re at the point of attack several times, but we don’t wrap up and tackle them. Then they bounce off of us and make long runs.”
Again, it’s a process of learning how to win.
“It’s not something where you flip the switch and it happens,” Dickey said. “We’re learning what that process is. And unfortunately (Saturday) we ran into a very good football team that is well coached and was pretty physical. They turned us into too many mistakes.”
The Wolves will try to get that first victory next Saturday when Lambuth University comes to University Stadium for the inaugural game on their own home field, an event that will mark a historic day for West Georgia Athletics.
Dickey said the team has a lot of work to do between then and now to be ready for it.
“We’re a little banged up coming in. We need to get ourselves focused on what the job at hand is going to be, and that’s to play a football game and beat a good Lambuth team. There’s no question about that,” he said.