With the crux of his offensive and defensive schemes sitting injured on the Gainesville bench, even a dominant win over a region opponent couldn’t put coach Bruce Miller in a good mood late Friday night.
Red Elephants quarterback Mikey Gonzalez (25 for 38) threw for 203 yards and four touchdowns to three different receivers in a 47-13 mauling of Heritage. The win puts Gainesville (3-1, 3-0 Region 8-AAAAA) in the driver’s seat of the region race, but it had to play for the majority of the night without lynchpin running back Chris Byrd, who left the game late in the first quarter after being tackled on a 19-yard rush.
A team doctor said Byrd suffered a broken left ankle as the talented junior was brought down at the 10-yard line with Gainesville leading 20-0 with 3:06 left in the opening quarter. Miller said he did not know how long Byrd might be out.
“It’s a huge injury, but that’s why we play these games,” Miller said. “You’ve got to line up on the line with the men you’ve got and play.”
The win made a statement, but may prove to be the most expensive of the season so far. Byrd (3 carries for 45 yards rushing, 10 receiving yards) had been dominant in the opening stages and was responsible for giving his team an unassailable lead.
He created a fumble by hitting Heritage quarterback David Turner after just four minutes, then running the ball back 25 yards for a 17-0 lead.
Gonzalez and his offense were ruthless against the Patriots, especially in the early stages. On the first drive, receiver Chris Williamson (8 receptions for 60 yards, two touchdowns) caught an 8-yard scoring pass to complete a 75-yard drive that lasted a minute and seventeen seconds.
The fumble return, one of seven Patriot turnovers, clearly affected Turner and the Heritage aerial attack. Lewis Cousins picked off Turner early in the first to set up kicker Chandler Staton (4 for 6, 27, 28, 29, 38) for the first of his four field goals in the first half.
Miller was unhappy about his team being unable to get into the end zone, but not as frustrated as Heritage coach Wendell Early, who saw his team drop to 1-4, 1-3 in Region 8-AAAAA.
“We gave them the ball just about every way we could tonight,” Early said. “We just about handed them 30 points just off of turnovers. I don’t know how many receptions we had, but that’s something we’ve gotta work on and improve on, is not giving the ball away every chance.”
Gainesville’s potent offense slowed to a crawl after Byrd’s injury. Gonzalez threw his only interception of the night seconds into the second quarter, allowing senior Brandon Edwards to regain possession for Heritage on its own 8-yard line. Turner (10 of 23 passing, 65 yards, two touchdowns, four interceptions) threw up a Hail Mary on the very next play, which somehow found Ryan Phillips for his only catch of the day, a 92-yard score that put the Patriots back in the game.
Heritage’s confidence did not last long. Gonzalez found Williamson open again two drives later, this time from 29 yards out, to restore Gainesville’s advantage. Cousins registered his second pick of the day when the Patriots tried to respond soon after, which gave Staton the opportunity to kick his fourth consecutive field goal.
“We’ve got so many things to work on now,” Miller said after the game. “I can’t believe we couldn’t get it in to score more and we need to do that. I thought we definitely improved defensively, though, Lewis definitely had himself a big day.”
Freshman defensive lineman Kash Jones made the second crucial fumble recovery of the game for Gainesville in the third quarter after Turner bobbled a snap deep in Heritage territory. Rodney Lackey (6 for 68 yards) ran in to score from five yards out for Gainesville’s third touchdown four plays later.
The athletic Turner was responsible for Heritage’s second score of the night when he scrambled out of the pocket before unleashing an 87-yard pass to Anthony Stanley, who escaped two Gainesville tacklers to score with 9:38 left in the third quarter.
But Early benched the starting quarterback for the fourth quarter after Gainesville’s Toddrick Turner and Demichael Borders both picked off the senior on each of the next two drives. Messiah Dorsey caught a 5-yard pass to score roughly a minute after the first of those two interceptions.
Backup quarterback Markese Jackson took control of the offense for two drives late in the game.
“Just as we’re starting to get people back from injuries, this happens with Chris,” Miller said. “It’s hard to take.”