In a game loaded with playoff implications, Gainesville High School managed to survive a slew of self-inflicted wounds.
The Red Elephants overcame 16 penalties and about as many busted plays to defeat Winder-Barrow 30-16 in a Region 8-AAAAA contest Friday night at City Park Stadium.
After losing a tight game at Dacula last week, Gainesville (4-4, 2-1) is firmly back in the hunt for its 17th straight playoff appearance.
Junior quarterback DJ Irons threw touchdowns to three different receivers and rushed for 60 yards despite the Bulldoggs (4-5, 1-3) sacking him six times.
“He made some big plays and picked up some very important first downs,” said Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller, who characterized his team’s play as sloppy. “I hope we can protect him better so he doesn’t have to do that.”
But Winder-Barrow sophomore running back Jamar Mack made his presence felt first, gashing Gainesville for 55 yards on the game’s first possession before the Bulldoggs settled for junior Jesse Zamora’s 36-yard field goal.
Thanks to some solid field position, the Red Elephants answered with a touchdown to take a 7-3 lead on Irons’ 20-yard strike to classmate Roadarius Timmons.
The next Gainesville possession yielded a similar result — Irons found junior Jim Barnett for a 45-yard touchdown pass.
Junior defensive lineman Zion Williams tipped and intercepted Winder-Barrow quarterback Brock Landis’ pass a few plays later, but the Red Elephants turned it over on downs just outside the red zone.
Both offenses stalled from there as the next seven drives ended in punts.
“The offense just kind of dwindled,” Miller said. “We scored two quick touchdowns, then we got sloppy. We couldn’t protect the quarterback, our run game became nonexistent.
“We’ve got some things we’ve got to work on.”
After a poor punt gave the Bulldoggs possession at Gainesville’s 40-yard line, Zamora’s 40-yard field goal finally ended the scoring drought before halftime.
Timmons ripped off an electrifying 50-yard kickoff return to begin the second half, giving the Red Elephants a short field. Gainesville looked like it did in the opening minutes of the contest, marching 45 yards to score on Irons’ 10-yard tunnel screen to junior Tyriq Kabir.
“We came back out in the second half and kind of rectified things, got things going,” Miller said.
Later in the third quarter, the Red Elephants punted from their own 5-yard line due to a pair of personal fouls. A facemask penalty and another personal foul made Winder-Barrow’s short field even shorter, and Zamora capped the drive with a 20-yard field goal.
A failed onside kick gave Gainesville an equally short field, which it turned into three points on senior kicker Brandon Reyna’s 27-yarder.
The Bulldoggs turned a busted play into a huge gain on third-and-20 before three more Red Elephants penalties helped them move inside the red zone. Senior Nathan Millwood scored on a 4-yard rush, cutting Winder-Barrow’s deficit to 24-16 with eight minutes to play.
“We talked to them in practice about (penalties), but we keep committing them,” a frustrated Miller said. “We keep shooting ourselves in the foot. We made some of their drives easy with penalties.”
Yett Gainesville overcame its mistakes and dominated the rest of the game, sandwiching two Reyna field goals around a fumble recovery by sophomore defensive back Javez Harrison.
Miller said he spoke with his team about the importance of winning this region game to stay ahead in the playoff picture. But he indicated that they’ll probably need to have another chat about penalties if they want to make a potential postseason appearance count.