They won the time-of-possession battle. They had nearly twice as much passing yardage. They allowed two points in the second half.
Yet, the Augusta Stallions (11-3) couldn't avoid a 36-34 upset loss at Charleston, S.C., on Saturday.
Poor special-teams coverage is the culprit. It's been a seasonlong problem for the Stallions, whose opponents have returned six kickoffs for touchdowns and are averaging 19.5 yards per kickoff return.
The Stallions had troubles keeping their hands on Billy Cook, who scored two touchdowns and had 230 yards in kickoff returns. Cook added 56 yards on three missed field goal returns.
"We didn't wrap that guy up last week," fullback/linebacker Dirk Lincicome said. "We made him look good by missing a lot of tackles. But if it would have been a different kick returner, we wouldn't have missed those tackles."
Cook is ranked sixth in the league in kickoff returns, with a 25.3 average. However, he didn't return a kick for a touchdown in the teams' first meeting, a 69-41 Augusta win.
"Special teams is nothing but hustle," Stallions lineman Blaine Mensch said. "The No. 1 thing on special teams is hustle, along with maintaining your priorities, staying in your lanes and just getting after it."
DEJA VU? The Stallions' two-game skid is reminiscent of 2001, when they lost five of their last six games and missed the playoffs, but players aren't looking back.
"We're a totally different team," Mensch said. "We've got our focus on a higher goal, and that's to make a great run at the playoffs. I hope that everyone on the squad feels the same way I do in achieving that goal."
Unlike 2001, Augusta has already clinched a playoff berth and will face Macon in the first round. If the Knights win one of their final two games or if the Stallions lose one of their final two games, Macon will have home-field advantage.
BIG DRAW: The buzz going around the Stallions front office is the possibility of a sellout.
Not since the team's first home game in 2000 has Augusta been close to selling out Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center, which holds 6,109.
Stallions general manager Darrell Harbin said the team has sold 4,100 tickets for Saturday's game with Tallahassee (7:30 p.m.).
Harbin said the team averages a walk-up crowd of 1,000 fans per game, but sold about 1,500 tickets the day of the Florida game two weeks ago.
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 114.
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