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Gainesville, Lanier to battle for 8-AAAAA supremacy
1010Gainesville1 JP
Gainesville running back Michael Byrd escapes from a group of Salem defensive linemen on Friday at City Park Stadium. The Red Elephants travel to Sugar Hall tonight to face the Lanier Longhorns in a matchup of the top two teams in Region 8-AAAAA. - photo by Jared Putnam

Gainesville at Lanier

When: 7:30 Friday night

Where: Lanier High, Sugar Hill

Coaches: Gainesville, Bruce Miller; Lanier, Korey Mobbs

Records: Gainesville (4-1, 4-0 Region 8-AAAAA); Lanier (5-0, 4-0)

Key players: Gainesville, QB Mikey Gonzalez (5-9, 160 Sr.); WR Messiah Dorsey (5-9, 170 Jr.); LB Jadarius Sosebee (6-0, 245 Sr.). Lanier, DE Derrick Brown (6-5, 275 Jr.); RB Ashton Barnes (5-9, 180 Jr.); DB Stefan Ball (5-10, 180 Sr.).

 

Read previews for Week 7 games here: 

Any way you look at it, similarities between the Gainesville and Lanier football programs are hard to find.

Gainesville boasts decades upon decades of tradition and history, highlighted by a bevy of region titles and a state championship.

Lanier, on the other hand, didn’t even open until 2010 and the football program didn’t begin region play until 2012.

The Longhorns have exactly one playoff appearance to their name, courtesy of a third-place finish in Region 8-AAAA last season.

The one thing the two programs do share is a two-way tie for first place in Region 8-AAAA, making Lanier the biggest threat to Gainesville’s ongoing dominance in the standings. The Red Elephants (4-1, 4-0) and Longhorns (5-0, 4-0) are the only remaining teams in 8-AAAAA with perfect region records.

“We’ve talked to our kids about the Gainesville tradition,” Lanier Coach Korey Mobbs said. “They’ve set the standard in this region. We’re just trying to get to the point where Gainesville is at, where you’re the standard of the region.”

Lanier gets an opportunity to lay claim to that position later today, when the Red Elephants travel to Sugar Hill to meet the Longhorns for the first time.

Although we’re barely past the midpoint of the regular season, tonight’s game will determine a clear front-runner in the chase for region title and a No. 1 seed in the state playoffs.

“It’s a huge game,” Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller said. “Whoever wins this game is in the driver’s seat for the playoff run.”

The stakes may be clear, but predicting how the game will play out is much more difficult.

Even based on the 2014 season alone, it’s tough to identify many common threads between the two programs. The Red Elephants and Longhorns have traveled polar opposite region paths thus far — they haven’t faced a common opponent through the first four games of the Region 8-AAAAA schedule.

“They’ve got the teams we’ve already played at the end of the season, and we’ve got the teams they’ve already played at the end of the season,” Miller said. “There’s not really a common denominator.”

Tonight’s game will pit the top two offenses and top two defenses in Region 8-AAAAA against one another.
Led by senior linebacker J.D. Sosebee (team-high 56 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 sack), a Charleston Southern commit, Gainesville’s defense has bounced back after a season-opening 39-0 loss to Grayson. Gainesville is allowing 14 points per game this season, including just eight points per game to region opponents.

Lanier has been even better.

The Longhorns have held opponents to 13 points per game behind two of the top performers in Gwinnett County.

Junior defensive end Derrick Brown, a Georgia commit, has piled up 50 tackles, eight tackles for loss and seven of his team’s whopping 21 sacks thus far this season.

While Brown has been busy wreaking havoc in the backfield, teammate Stefan Ball has caused just as many problems for opposing offenses downfield. The senior defensive back already boasts six interceptions and eight passes defended in 2014.

“Defensively we’ve just done a good job of rallying to the football and creating turnovers,” Mobbs said. “We just know the challenge gets tougher this week with a well-oiled machine in Gainesville.”

Despite averaging 34 points per game this season, Gainesville is coming off a frustrating offensive performance in a 29-6 victory against Salem last week. The Red Elephants scored their first 22 points of the game via special teams and defense, before adding an insurance touchdown on offense in the closing minutes of the game.

Miller said the Red Elephants must improve their red zone efficiency going forward.

“In the red zone, or when we were inside the 25-yard line, we just did not make the plays,” he said. “We need to get touchdowns. A lot of times we had to settle for field goals.”

Key injuries aren’t making things any easier.

The Red Elephants played their first full game last week without two-way star Chris Byrd, a junior who has more rushing yards (196) than all other Gainesville ball carriers combined this year. His brother, fellow running back Michael Byrd, took the lead role in the backfield against Salem after missing most of the first half of the season due to a concussion.

Now, wide receiver Rodney Lackey’s status against Lanier is uncertain. Lackey, one of three Gainesville receivers with at least 20 catches and 245 receiving yards this season, broke his hand in last week’s game.

Miller pointed out that Lackey played his sophomore season with a cast on his hand. The wide receiver finished the year with 69 receptions, 981 yards and 15 touchdowns — the best single-season statistics of his varsity career.

“It looks like he’s still going to be able to play,” Miller said.

Lanier possesses a strong offense of its own, with a solid 27 points per game average this season.

The Longhorns’ scoring attack has been most effective on the ground behind running backs Tario Fuller (72 carries, 319 rushing yards, 4 TDs), a senior committed to Purdue, and Ashton Barnes (33 carries, 358 rushing yards, 2 TDs), a junior.

Miller said it will be key for Gainesville to avoid giving up big plays like the ones that Barnes has created en route to an average of 10.8 yards per carry this year. It’s the kind of thing that could make the difference in a game where neither team seems to have a significant edge.

“I think we’ve both got good kicking games, too,” Miller said. “It’s a pretty evenly matched contest going in.”

Gainesville and Lanier kick off at 7:30 p.m. in Sugar Hill.

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