The Blitz, complete high school coverage
BUFORD – Gainesville senior linebacker Michael Pittman went from one emotional extreme to the other Friday at Tom Riden Stadium.
Before the game, he was brought to tears thinking about beating Buford, the school for which he once played. That experience made Gainesville’s 19-15 win even sweeter afterward.
“This means everything to me,” said Pittman, who played for Buford as a freshman.
The Red Elephants (1-1) shook off five turnovers, three on interceptions, with a go-ahead, 22-yard touchdown pass to Jay Gaudlock from Deshaun Watson with 7:51 left to play.
Watson had three touchdown passes on the night, but was also intercepted twice inside the Buford 10, keeping an inconsistent Wolves offense in the game until the end.
The final touchdown drive was made possible when Tray Harrison took the ball from the 2 on the kick off and returned it down to the Buford 30. The Red Elephants scored the winning touchdown on the fifth play of the drive.
The win was especially meaningful for Gainesville coach Bruce Miller after losing the season opener to the Wolves (1-1) each of the past two seasons. It also gave the Red Elephants a huge confidence boost after last Thursday’s 32-30 loss to Class AAAAAA West Forsyth to open the season.
“This win is just a tribute to how hard our kids worked,” Miller said. “They kept fighting and stuck it out.”
It was also Gainesville’s first in school history against Buford.
“This win means a lot for us,” Gainesville senior safety Fred Payne said. “We had a bad taste after last week’s loss, but feel much better now.
“This is a great way to go into region play, but we have to stay hungry and humble.”
The Gainesville defense made the win possible by shutting down Buford’s rushing game, which only gained 65 yards on the night. Pittman, playing his third time against Buford, knew well about their running game between the tackles.
“They run the power, keep running the power, until you prove you can stop it,” Pittman said. “I’m so happy we were able to play as well as we did.”
Miller knew it was the defense that was the deciding factor.
“Our defense played super all night,” he said.
With a 19-15 lead in hand late, the Red Elephants had to secure the win with the ball in hand and pinned deep in their own territory. Starting at the 3, Watson hit Lahius Leverette for a gain of 12 and put the game away with a another strike to Rodney Lackey (nine catches, 75 yards) that picked up 20 in the final two minutes for a first down that kept the clock running since Buford was out of timeouts.
“The fact that we couldn’t stop Gainesville late when they had the ball deep was probably my only regret,” Buford coach Jess Simpson said. “Our team fought hard all night, even though we are so young and refused to break.”
Early in the fourth quarter, Buford took the lead when quarterback Taylor Mitchell connected with Tre’ Neal for a pass and 56-yard touchdown. The Wolves were most effective passing with 148 yards through the air.
Gainesville took its first lead in the final minute of the first half when Watson hit Lackey on an 8-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone after it was deflected up by a Wolves defender.
Miller had no doubt whether to go for the score despite the early interceptions, and deep in Gainesville’s own territory with only 1:02 remaining on the first-half clock. That decision paid off huge when Watson did a pump fake and found senior receiver Caleb Hayman open for a 71-yard gain down to the 7.
“We knew we had to get that touchdown going into the half,” Hayman said. “The coach called the play, and it felt good to be able to make that big play.”
Buford scored the game's first touchdown on a 2-yard run by Zavior Hoxie. That score was set up after a Gainesville interception. On the Red Elephants’ next drive, Buford’s Thomas Wilson intercepted a Watson pass on the goal line.
However, Gainesville scored midway through the second quarter as Gaudlock hauled in 4-yard touchdown pass.
Though he struggled passing early, Watson set up the touchdown with a great job running the ball, including gains of 12 and 10 yards. Watson finished a game-high 113 rushing yards.
Gainesville visits Winder-Barrow on Friday to open Region 8-AAAAA play; Buford faces Hancock Central at Tom Riden Stadium.