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Gainesville has 'nothing to lose' by playing No. 1 Stockbridge in Round 2
Red Elephants (8-3) need to stop Tigers' (11-0) run game
Gainesville High's Chris Lyles cuts across the field as he returns an interception during the first half of the Red Elephants' Nov. 13 playoff game against Alexander High at City Park Stadium.

Read preview capsules of other area playoff teams' matchups here

Gainesville at Stockbridge

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Tiger Stadium, Stockbridge

Tickets: $10, per GHSA

Stop if you’ve heard this one before: It’s Friday night, Gainesville High is in the second round of the football state playoffs and its opponent is highly ranked in the state. The Red Elephants are on the road and looking to pull off an upset.

Nearly a year ago today, Gainesville was in that exact position when they defeated Harris County 49-40 to move on to the state quarterfinals.

Tonight, it’s a different stadium and a different opponent, but the same situation is in front of the Red Elephants (8-3) when they play Stockbridge (11-0).

The Tigers are the top-ranked team in Class AAAAA and in the hunt for a state title.

“They’re ranked No. 1,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “We’ve got nothing to lose by going down there and playing them. It’s a challege for our guys to go play them.”

Stockbridge has been in the playoffs every year since 2010, virtually taking a step further with each trip.

In 2010, the Tigers reached the first round.

In 2011, the second.

The next two seasons ended in the quarterfinals.

Last season, the Tigers reached the semifinals, where they lost to Mays High, 30-15.

This season, Stockbridge is trying to take that final step into the championship game, but they’ll have to get past Big Red to get there.

“They look like a No. 1 team in the state,” Miller said. “In the playoffs, you don’t get any slouches. You won’t get anybody that’s not any good. We’ve got to go play and see what happens.”

On Tuesday, running back Chris Byrd said the Red Elephants wouldn’t be changing anything up in practice this week.

“We prepare the same way,” Byrd said. “I don’t think they’ve been hit the way we’re going to hit them this Friday.”

With a win, Gainesville will be back in the quarterfinals, which is where its run came to an end last season.

To get there, they’ll have to stop the potent triple-option play of the Tigers.

“We’re looking to stop the run,” said defensive back Chris Lyles. “They’re a great run team. They run the triple option. That’s three plays in one, so we’ve got to stop the quarterback, the halfback and the pitch man. We’re working on that.”

Tigers’ running back Jalen Holston has carried the ball 120 times this season for 1,015 yards and nine touchdowns. Of the 11 games this season for Stockbridge, Holston has amassed over 100 yards in five of them.

Fellow running back Jamari Clark leads the team in rushing touchdowns with 11 and has 44 carries.

Quarterback Malachi Brown has 54 carries for 373 yards and five scores.

Brown has thrown the ball just 88 times, completing 55, for 786 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions.

“We’ve got to play assigment football playing the option,” Miller said. “Our guys are going to have to read their keys and go to their keys or we’ll have a long night down there.”

While the Red Elephants are hoping to stop the run and make the Tigers throw the ball, Lyles will be looking to add to his tally of 10 interceptions this year on defense. Until then, he knows his assignment.

Our secondary, since they don’t throw the ball a lot, we’ve got to be involved in the run game,” Lyles said. “We’re fixing our defense to help that and assist the front seven.”

Byrd said the defense needs to stop the Tigers before they get outside because the defensive line will help get pressure up the middle.

Offensively, the Red Elephants pack a punch all their own.

Quarterback Messiah Dorsey, a converted receiver, has thrown for 1,566 yards and 13 scores. He’s also added 1,103 on the ground with 12 touchdowns.

For Miller, who’s coached the likes of Deshaun Watson and Blake Sims - both of whom can move, but rely on passing the ball - this season has been an adjustment with Dorsey under center.

“I think we’ve done a good job of adjusting to his style of play and not trying to take a square peg and put it in a round hole,” Miller said. “I think that’s a tribute to our coaching staff and our players. They’ve adjusted and we’ve become who we are.”

Miller said his signal caller has grown each week.

“He’s had some games where he probably wishes he could do them again, but he’s had some others where he’s gotten better and better and better,” coach continued. “I hope the better guy shows up Friday night.”

Dorsey has Byrd, who has 830 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, to hand the ball to in the backfield.

The pair will have to be shifty as they deal with the Tigers’ defense.

Stockbridge senior defensive end Charles Wiley has 15.5 sacks this season and is committed to Ole Miss.

The Tigers have a pair of linebackers who have combined for 149 total tackles and 23 tackles for loss.

“Our offensive line, they’ve been working hard this week. They’ve been watching extra film and staying after practice a little later. I feel like our offensive line will be ready,” Lyles said. “Messiah is going to pick (the blitz) up. If he sees a guy rushing, he’s a mobile quarterback, so he can run. Also, he’s got Byrd in the backfield, so he can give it to Byrd and he’ll get those extra yards when we need them.”

The Red Elephants have had a season which has left some doubt in fans’ minds at times.

Coming into the season it was whether Dorsey could fill the void left by Mikey Gonzalez. During the season injuries were cause for concern.

Now, Byrd says things couldn’t be better.

“I feel like we’re just coming together as a whole,” he said. “We have a few people who are finally figuring out their roles. We have a few players who moved in from other schools that are helping out a lot. I think this Friday will be key because we’re just getting as healthy as we can be.”

The team is healing at the right time. With another upset opportunity in the second round, Gainesville needs everybody to be at their best and those who have been there before need to lead.

“Me and Chris Byrd, we’ve been in this situation before,” Lyles said. “Our freshman year we went to state, so we know what it takes to get there. If these younger guys will follow our footsteps, we’ll get where we need to go.”

Lyles said the team hit its turning point and realized what they needed to do to make it to this point after the loss to Clarke Central in Week 7.

“The week after that game, the movie ‘Woodlawn’ came out and (Miller) wanted us to go as a team to watch it, so we did,” Lyles said. “We just saw how they came together and they believed in each other. Since then, we’ve fed off that. That just made us become a stronger brotherhood.”

Byrd said the Red Elephants know how big it would be to shut the Tigers down and win the game. “That’ll help add some more momentum going into the next round,” he said.

Lyles would prefer the stop the No. 1 team early and make a statement.

“We’d love to start off on defense first. Come out, shut them up and hit them in the mouth real hard to get the offense feeding off us,” Lyles said. “That’ll help us out a lot.”

Gainesville and Stockbridge will kick off at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Tiger Stadium.


Read preview capsules of other area playoff teams' matchups here

Gainesville at Stockbridge

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Tiger Stadium, Stockbridge

Tickets: $10, per GHSA

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