Red Elephants 40, Bulldoggs 26
Difference maker: Gainesville’s Messiah Dorsey. He looked light years more comfortable on Friday than he did in the opener against Grayson. He was afforded much more time in the pocket, and made smart plays with his arm and his feet.
Stat that matters: 3 interceptions. Gainesville picked off Winder-Barrow quarterback Noah Chapman three times throughout the night. Hunter Sims made the most critical pick in the fourth when he snagged a pass destined for the end zone as the Bulldoggs were driving, down just two touchdowns with less than 2:30 left on the clock.
Turning point: With less than eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, Gainesville's defense made a goal-line stand to thwart Winder-Barrow's chances of pulling within two scores.
Next up: Gainesville next returns home to face Apalachee in a region contest. The Red Elephants won 48-7 in last year's game.
WINDER — Messiah Dorsey wanted to send a message to the rest of Region 8-AAAAA Friday night: The senior is ready to compete with the best.
Dorsey, a converted wide receiver in his first year under center, ran for three touchdowns and passed for two more in a nervy 40-26 win over Winder-Barrow at W. Clair Harris Stadium in Winder.
“All of these people, saying I’m not a good quarterback, it’s all talk,” the senior said. “This was a statement game.”
Gainesville’s (1-1, 1-0 in region) first win of the season came down to the wire, thanks to Bulldoggs’ running back CeCe Green. He energized Winder-Barrow (1-2, 1-1 in region) with 329 yards on 34 carries, with two scores, including one to cut the lead to 19 with 11:40 left in the fourth quarter.
The Red Elephants shot out to a 27-0 lead before halftime, but the Bulldoggs rattled off 12 unanswered points in the final 11:40 before defensive back Hunter Sims’ interception stopped Winder-Barrow’s final drive.
Dorsey finished the game with 130 passing yards and 84 rushing yards with one interception.
Gainesville head coach Bruce Miller wasn’t happy to have given up 508 yards of total offense, but praised the win, saying he wanted his team to get better each week.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be at a point where we’ll be happy with where it is, but it was a good win and we’ll be able to celebrate that,” he said.
Still, Dorsey was thrilled to come in to his own as a mobile, dual-threat quarterback. He shook off a lackluster performance against Grayson on Aug. 28 to break out for a 50-yard rushing touchdown after less than a minute and a half in the first quarter, then followed it up with a 9-yard score two drives later to make it 14-0.
Running back Chris Byrd had a strong night in the backfield, totaling 109 yards as the workhorse in an offense that’s growing into a triple threat.
Dorsey (12-of-22 passing) tossed his first passing touchdown to Tyreke Watson to put the Red Elephants on top 21-0 before the opening quarter ended. Chandler Staton was able to tack on a couple of chip shot field goals to give Gainesville its largest lead at 27-0 with 5:10 left in the first half.
“It felt great,” said Dorsey. “We had a horrible game against Grayson, so we were really wanting to bring our best game out tonight.”
But Green, a senior, had a career-defining night to keep Winder-Barrow in the contest. He helped lead the Bulldoggs to four straight first downs in just over a minute to secure his team’s first touchdown of the game when he scrambled in from 13 yards out.
At its best, Gainesville’s defense swarmed the field to make plays. Keith Harris recovered a fumble on Winder’s second play of the first half, which led to Dorsey finding Tre Blackwell in the end zone from 14 yards out for a 34-7 Gainesville lead.
At its worst, it let Green rip off a 55-yard gain up the middle before Darrell Woodall nabbed a 10-yard pass from Winder quarterback Noah Chapman (15-of-30, 155 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions) to cut the lead to 20 just before the fourth quarter.
Still, Dorsey found pay dirt on a 70-yard drive just inside the fourth to open up a 40-14 lead when he ran in untouched from 9 yards.
From then on, Winder stole the momentum. Chandler Staton’s extra point attempt was blocked before Green bolted for an 80-yard rushing score on the first play of the ensuing Bulldoggs drive.
Gainesville was unable to safely recover the onside kick, which allowed Winder-Barrow a short field with enough time.
The Red Elephants held strong on four straight run plays by Green and Chapman at the goal line to halt the promising drive, but gave up a safety when Byrd was tackled in the end zone to make it 40-23 with 7:51 left.
Winder-Barrow’s Alan Leighton nailed a 25-yard field goal that shaved the Gainesville lead to two scores with 6:10 to go. Staton then missed a 39-yard field goal on the next drive, which gave Winder one last drive with 3:18 left.
“It took a lot of heart for them to do that,” said Dorsey. “I had to tell our guys, you’ll be on a roller coaster, it’ll be ups and downs, but the Red Elephants, they always make it through.”
Chapman threw for three straight first downs to get Winder-Barrow all the way down to Gainesville’s 25 until Sims stepped in front of a receiver near the goal line. The Red Elephants were able to waste the clock and preserve the victory.
“You’ve got to make big-time plays to win big-time games,” said Miller.