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Defense saves the day for Gainesville in 29-6 win over Salem
Red Elephants offense stalls early, awakens late for 4th straight win
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Gainesville quarterback Mikey Gonzalez runs away from Salem’s T.J. Jones on Friday at City Park Stadium. - photo by Jared Putnam

Red Elephants 29, Seminoles 6

Difference maker: Toddrick Turner tipped a ball to teammate Demichael Borders, who finished the play with a 70-yard interception return touchdown. Then, Turner had a 72-yard punt return for a score and a 51-yard interception return to set up a field goal.

Stat that matters: 20 points off 6 turnovers. Gainesville’s defense kept taking the ball away to help the Red Elephants maintain control even as their offense struggled.

Turning point: Demichael Borders’ interception return and Turner’s punt return touchdown in the final three minutes of the first half took it from a 2-0 game to a 16-0 Gainesville edge at the half.

Who’s next: Gainesville (4-1, 4-0 Region 8-AAAAA) plays at region co-leader Lanier (5-0, 4-0) next Friday. Salem (4-2, 4-1) has a week off before visiting Loganville on Oct. 17.

With a safety the only thing on the board for Gainesville through almost two quarters, Toddrick Turner had a hand in a pair of plays that turned the tide.

First, Turner tipped a pass to fellow defensive back Demichael Borders, who returned the interception 70 yards for a touchdown with 3:06 left in the first half. Then, Turner’s 72-yard punt return touchdown in the final minute of the second quarter gave the Red Elephants (4-1, 4-0 Region 8-AAAAA) a 16-0 edge on Salem (4-2, 4-1).

That was more than enough to help Gainesville to a 29-6 victory Friday night at City Park Stadium, though the Red Elephants didn’t score an offensive touchdown until the game’s final two minutes.

Turner also returned his own interception 51 yards to the Seminoles 9 in the fourth quarter to set up the second of a pair of Chandler Staton 32-yard field goals.

“If you can’t make the play, you’ve got a teammate to make it for you,” Turner said of his and Borders’ collaboration on the interception that went for a score. “And the punt return, halftime was coming up, 30 seconds left, we had to make a play. So I had to make a play for my team.”

On a night when the offense stalled often, the Red Elephants defense forced six turnovers that led to 20 of Gainesville’s 29 points. Jadarius Sosebee’s interception in the last two minutes capped a night where Antonio Wade and Lewis Cousins each recovered fumbles for the Red Elephants, who handed Salem their first region loss of the season.

“Our defense played awesome. I thought we made play after play after play on defense,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “Offensively, we’ve got to score in the red zone. When we get the ball down there, we’ve got to score. We’ve just got to finish some drives. We just didn’t finish drives tonight.”

The Red Elephants defense was also hitting hard throughout much of the contest. One particular instance came when defensive lineman Jamel Dabney broke through the middle and flattened the Salem quarterback for an 8-yard loss on a third-down play. One play later, Turner took a punt to the house for a 16-point lead.

Noting the early struggles, Miller said the interception and punt return for scores “was our offense” for a while.

It was a Borders fumble recovery at Salem’s 16 in the fourth quarter that set up the Red Elephants’ lone offensive touchdown. Three plays after the recovery, Michael Byrd pulled in a 16-yard scoring reception from Mikey Gonzalez with 1:57 remaining in the contest.

“It wasn’t our best night,” Byrd said. “But we did what we had to do to get a win. It’s OK because we’re undefeated in the region. We’re ready to get back to practice next week and learn from the mistakes we had tonight.”

The first five trips inside the Seminoles 30 ended in that touchdown, two field goals and two turnovers for Gainesville. The Red Elephants also had six drives where their offense went three-and-out.

Gonzalez was 20 of 28 passing for 171 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

“We’ve just got to quit relying on field goals,” Miller said. “We’ve got to score touchdowns.”

Byrd finished with 49 rushing yards and 34 receiving yards. Messiah Dorsey tallied six receptions for 82 yards for Gainesville.

Kanome McIntosh led Salem with 11 receptions for 85 yards. Hasan Boddie caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from Tristin Hernandez for the Seminoles' lone points.

“Salem came in here and played us off our feet,” Miller said. “We’ve got to do a better job.”

Gainesville visits Lanier next Friday in a matchup of the two teams who are unbeaten in Region 8-AAAAA play. The Longhorns, who were off this week, are 5-0 overall and have the same 4-0 region record as Gainesville. Aside from the Red Elephants and Longhorns, Salem is the only team with fewer than two region losses.

“If we want to be able to be in the thick of things in this region, we’ve got to play better,” Miller said.

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