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Game of the Week: Top-ranked Gainesville, Buford to continue growing rivalry

Red Elephants, Wolves each won state championships in 2012

POSTED: September 5, 2013 9:40 p.m.
Jared Putnam | The Times/

Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson throws a pass during a Red Elephants practice earlier this year. Watson and Gainesville host Buford tonight at City Park Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.

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Gainesville senior linebacker Devan Stringer has played against Buford every year he’s been on the field for the Red Elephants, so it’s not hard for the Appalachian State commit to consider the Wolves a rival.

“I think it has definitely become a rivalry,” Stringer said.

“With them winning so many state championships and with us the last few years always going so deep in the playoffs, I think it is a huge game. I think it has turned into a rivalry. There is some bad blood, but it is fun.”

While the teams may now be rivals, at least in Stringer’s eyes, it hasn’t always been that way.

Prior to Gainesville’s 19-15 win at Tom Riden Stadium in Buford last season, the Red Elephants were winless against Buford, losing the four previous all-time meetings by an average of 22 points.

Last season, Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson threw a touchdown pass with just under eight minutes to go, lifting the Red Elephants to the four-point win and bringing the series between the two premier teams to rivalry status.

“It is for bragging rights,” said Buford linebacker Korie Rogers, the reigning Class AAA Defensive Player of the Year.

“We are going to come back bigger, stronger, faster. We are hungry.”

Tonight, Buford gets its shot at redemption against Gainesville when the two teams meet for the fourth straight season (sixth all-time) at Bobby Gruhn Field at City Park Stadium.

The matchup is the marquee game of the week in the state, as both teams are ranked No. 1 in their respective classification, coming off state championship victories a season ago.

“This is just a fun game,” Buford coach Jess Simpson said. “To have this at the beginning of your year, I think it is good for your coaches and your kids, as far as a focus standpoint. They got the best of us a year ago and they left a bad taste in our mouths, so it has been motivating.”

“Whenever you get a playoff atmosphere early in the season, it is something everybody looks forward to,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “It should be a good ball game.”

If the Wolves have one thing going for them heading into tonight’s matchup it’s that they only surrendered 19 points to Gainesville last season and forced five turnovers, four of which were interceptions off Watson, the state’s all-time leading passer and the all-classification Player of the Year last season.

Tonight, the Wolves are hoping to build on their defensive performance from last season.

“I didn’t think we played very good (last year). They controlled the line of scrimmage, their quarterback and running back fell forward every time and we didn’t tackle great in space,” Simpson said. “It wasn’t good enough. At the end of the day, if you told me (tonight) that we are only to give up 19 points, I’ll take it.”

In order to slow down Gainesville’s high-octane offensive attack and limit the production of Watson, Buford plans on bringing pressure and keeping an eye on the receivers at all times.

“We have put a few blitzes in but we try not to focus on one player,” said Buford senior defensive back Thomas Wilson. “We try to focus on the team.

“We just want to stay connected and don’t give up on a play. If (Watson) scrambles out, his receivers can still be open and can come back to the ball.”

For the Red Elephants, they know Buford will play smash-mouth football with its option attack, while mixing in a solid passing game with senior quarterbacks Montgomery VanGorder and Taylor Mitchell.

“Buford is going to try and line up and come right at you and hit you in the face,” Miller said. “They’ll say, ‘Ok, do you like that?’ You just have to stand in there and go toe-to-toe with them and fight it out.

“(The defensive backs) are going to have to read their keys. They are going to have to play off their keys and not want to be aggressive on the line of scrimmage. You need their help up there, but they have to be ready because Buford is a very good play-action football team.”

Both Buford and Gainesville cruised to victories to open the season last week.

Buford routed Elbert County 46-7, using touchdowns from six different players and limiting the Blue Devils to less than 100 yards of total offense until late in the fourth quarter when younger players were on the field.

Gainesville used a five-touchdown performance from Watson (4 passing) to blow past West Forsyth 58-28, despite surrendering 21 points in the first quarter. Gainesville’s quarterback needs 257 yards to become the first 10,000-yard passer in state history, according to the Georgia High School Football Daily.

When watching the game film, Simpson saw another talented Gainesville team that not only features Watson, but many other versatile players.

“They have a lot of continuity and they understand what they’re trying to accomplish,” Simpson said. “You can just tell they’ve been doing this a long time and they’ve added to it over the years. They just operate really well and fast.”

Both teams are relatively healthy heading into tonight’s game. Miller said the Red Elephants didn’t have any major injuries, just the normal bumps and bruises that come after playing a game and that all players are expected to play tonight.

While the majority of Buford’s starting lineup is healthy, the Wolves could be without three players, one of whom was involved in a car accident earlier this week and is doubtful to play. Simpson declined to name those players.

Buford returned 10 starters from its Class AAA championship team, while Gainesville returned 12 from its Class AAAAA title team. Rogers and Watson, both Clemson University commitments, headline the returning starters for their respective team.

The duo will face off for the final time tonight before joining forces in Clemson next season. While the two are friends off the field, tonight is all about getting the victory over their future teammate.

“Every time we see each other we always say it is going to be fun,” Rogers said. “We are friends, we talk if we see each other at Clemson and whatever.”

“It is going to be pretty cool knowing in the future we are going to be playing with each other,” Watson said of facing Rogers tonight. “We haven’t really talked much about it. We’ve just said, ‘Let the best team win and let’s go out there and compete against each other like regular high school teams.’”

While the teams will treat tonight like a regular high school game, it is anything but that. Buford is a program that is coming off its eighth state championship victory since 2000, while Gainesville won its first-ever GHSA state championship a season ago.

Both are expected to compete for titles again this season.


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