The end of Friday night’s game between host Jefferson and Gainesville at Memorial Stadium gave fans the clear indication this series will not end anytime soon.
The Red Elephants’ (2-2) thrilling second-half rally, sparked by several reactive calls by the officials and a breakout performance by junior quarterback D.J. Irons, came up just short as the Dragons escaped with a 31-28 win in this first-ever nonregion clash.
Irons used his arm and feet to extend drives and throw for three second-half touchdowns. He added a 2-point conversion pass to Red Davis (three catches, 32 yards, TD) with 6:22 left in regulation to bring the Red Elephants within three of the Dragons.
With 1:17 left, the Gainesville defense held Jefferson’s final 13-play drive short by the nose of the football on a fourth-and-2, giving the visitors the ball and one last chance to cap the comeback.
Six plays later, Irons’ final two heaves from Jefferson's 35-yard-line to the endzone were batted down by Jefferson’s Zac Corbin and Colby Wood, and the home crowd stormed the field in celebration as the final buzzer sounded.
That’s one way to introduce a series.
“We had a chance, and you know, got a stop here and got the ball back with a 1:17 left, and you know, we just came up short,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “Some old football coach said one time ‘they didn’t beat us, the clock just ran out.’ But it was a great game, we came back and played, played so hard. And we were one play away from winning it.”
Jefferson (4-1) almost couldn’t get out of its own way, due in part to costly 15-yard penalties extending consecutive Red Elephant drives throughout the second half. A late pass interference call along the sideline even turned a fourth and 20 into a mere fourth-and-5, which Big Red converted into a 19-yard Irons-to-Red Davis touchdown connection at the 0:58 mark of the third quarter.
The Dragons otherwise countered those costly mistakes with another solid performance in the trenches. They established their run game early on back-to-back rushing scores by junior running back Colby Wood (27 carries, 226 yards, two TDs) and senior Zack Boobas (58 rushing yards, two TD) in the opening quarter. Wood struck first on a 57-yard scamper at the 10:59 mark.
Colby Clark's pass to Wood in the back right corner of the endzone on third-and-goal was just off target, but the Dragons' 13-play drive still managed to eat up a big chunk of game clock before settling for the 26-yard field goal to go up 17-0 over the Red Elephants with 9:09 left in the half.
Wood and Boobas each reached the end zone once more in the second half to keep the Red Elephants racing the game clock. The Dragons’ backfield as a whole racked up 311 yards, freshman starting quarterback Colby Clark added 66 yards to the pot as well.
“It was two completely different styles going at it, and we were able to establish the line of scrimmage like I knew we had to do in this game,” Jefferson coach Ben Hall said. “They got their skill guys into space, and we were afraid that would happen, and it came down to the wire. Two teams battling out.”
Irons (22 of 31, 254 yards) took full advantage of back-to-back bye weeks to emerge as a different player Friday night. It took Irons a while to settle in. He barely escaped a sure interception dropped by Boobas on the Red Elephants’ second drive, and then overthrew an open Jim Barnett on a deep route off the playaction on their third drive. Irons finally found his groove on their fourth possession, completing three passes for 35 yards before punching in the Red Elephants’ first score on a 6-yard keeper with 2:05 left in the half.
A big kick return by Roadarius Timmons to open the second half set up Gainesville for its second score. Irons found Barnett (five catches, 83 yards) in the end zone five plays later, the first of two touchdown connections for the pair.
“He by far, from the film study, I felt like he played his best game,” Hall said of Irons. “He’s a good player, and Gainesville’s gonna have a great year. He made throws when he needed to make them.”
Gainesville is host to Marist next Friday. Jefferson plays at Madison County next week.