If it was redemption they wanted, it was redemption the Red Elephants got on Friday night with a 21-14 win over Clarke Central at City Park Stadium.
A year ago, the Gladiators topped Big Red 44-7 in Athens.
But as it usually is, redemption was hard-earned for the Red Elephants (2-1).
“We just kept battling,” coach Bruce Miller said. “Several things didn’t go our way — the fumble on the kickoff, the interception right there to give them the ball — but we kept fighting. I’ve learned in this business, don’t ever look a win in the face and say, ‘We don’t want you.’ We’ll take them any way we can get them.”
Gainesville was up 14-0 at half and well into the third quarter before Clarke Central (1-2) scored on a Jonathan Sewell (15 carries, 107 yards, TD) 65-yard run down the left sideline.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Red Elephants fumbled on their own 20-yard line, where the Gladiators recovered. They scored again six plays later to tie the contest at 14.
In 1:43, momentum swung from a 14-0 lead for the Red Elephants to a 14-14 tie for the Gladiators.
With six minutes left in the contest, Gainesville quarterback DJ Irons (25 of 35, 209 yards, two touchdowns, three interceptions) tossed a 1-yard touchdown to senior Brendon Goss, the first of his career, to go up for good.
“DJ said ‘touchdown’ before we ran the play,” Goss said. “It feels so good against that team. I’m just so glad we could get some revenge.”
Still, Clarke Central fought back.
Irons threw an interception to Kapres Forbes, his second of the game, with 4:10 left, setting up the final drive for Clarke Central.
The Gladiators' last possession started at the Gainesville 41-yard line. Six plays later, they were on the 16.
Then senior linebacker Kris Montague had back-to-back sacks for the Red Elephants to push Clarke Central back to third-and-25 at the Gainesville 31.
Quarterback Jack Mangel threw a 5-yard pass to Sewell before tossing an incomplete pass to extinguish the drive and effectively seal the game.
“(Getting the stop) shows how hard we fight during the game and how hard coach prepares us for situations like that,” Montague said. “Momentum swings during football games, but we just have to take it right back from them.”
Montague said the team responded from last week’s 28-7 loss to Alpharetta with more focus in practice this week, something fellow senior linebacker Willie Brooks alluded to earlier this week.
“It feels like we actually prepared for it,” Montague said. “Like my teammate Willie said, I feel like we got serious in practice this week.”
Miller said it’s still early, but there’s a lot the Red Elephants can take from this win.
“Nothing’s ever going to be easy for us, but we have to keep scratching and clawing and coming up with wins,” Miller said.
The Red Elephants opened scoring with a 13-yard run early in the second quarter by Kadarius Smith. Smith ended the contest with 12 carries for 53 yards and the score.
Just over four minutes later, Irons found Jim Barnett (7 receptions, 97 yards, TD), who beat two defenders to get open down the right sideline for a 65-yard score. The touchdown gave Gainesville a 14-0 cushion.
The Red Elephants have back-to-back bye weeks before traveling to Jefferson on Sept. 23.
During the consecutive weeks off, Miller said his squad needs to heal.
“We’ve got three or four people that are hurt,” Miller said. “We’re all banged up and we need to heal.”
Montague echoed the need to heal, but also said the Red Elephants need to buckle down on fundamentals in practice during those two weeks.
“We’re a young team. We’re learning,” Miller said. “I’d rather learn winning. We’ll take this and we’ve got two weeks off. We’ll take this one and enjoy it.”