High school football Previews: Friday's Games
Gainesville at Buford
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Tom Riden Stadium, Buford
Coaches: Gainesville, Bruce Miller; Buford, Jess Simpson
Records: Gainesville (0-1, 0-0 Region 8-AAAAA); Buford (1-0, 0-0 Region 7-AAA)
Key players: Gainesville, QB Deshaun Watson (6-3, 195 Jr.), S Fred Payne (5-11, 180 Sr.), WR/KR Tray Harrison (5-7, 150 Sr.). Buford, OL/DL Josh Cardiello (6-4, 285 Sr.), RB Dontravious Wilson (5-11, 215 Sr.), TE/LB Korie Rodgers (6-2, 210 Sr.).
Prediction: BUFORD. A week after struggling to stop West Forsyth’s ground game, Gainesville can expect heavy doses of a power-running attack from the Wolves.
Gainesville coach Bruce Miller hadn’t planned to start the season with a loss, but that doesn’t mean that last week’s 32-30 defeat to West Forsyth didn’t serve a purpose.
Opening the season with a top-ten ranking in Class AAAAA and fresh off a run to the state semifinals last fall, a third straight 0-1 start was likely the last thing Miller was hoping for.
Maybe the only thing less appealing? An 0-2 start.
That’s what the ninth-ranked Red Elephants will be trying to avoid tonight with they visit Buford at Tom Riden Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
“I think the biggest thing is we found out when we play good competition, that we’ve got to play well,” Miller said.
“I think we have gotten kind of lulled into thinking that there’s some games during the year when we can play subpar and still win, and we don’t have that opportunity this year.”
In Class AAA, the Red Elephants may have gotten away some lackluster performances, but regardless of how they’ve played, they haven’t been able to figure out Buford, as the Wolves have defeated Gainesville soundly in the last two season openers.
Now that they’re stepping up two classes, Miller hopes these early-season challenges will prove beneficial in the long run.
“And that was one reason for scheduling these folks,” he said, “that we would get to that reality that we can’t play subpar and win football games. And we played subpar at some point (last week) in all three phases of the game.”
Like Gainesville, Buford (No. 2 in Class AAA) has never shied away from stiff competition. In previous years, the Wolves have filled out their nonregion slate with opponents like the Red Elephants, Carver-Columbus and highly regarded out-of-state opponents.
This year, the Wolves opened with Elbert County (previously No. 4 in AAA) and came away with a 14-3 win that left coach Jess Simpson more confident in his inexperienced group.
“We played three ninth graders and a whole bunch of sophomores, and our seniors are seniors, but a lot of those guys weren’t even on the two-deep a year ago,” Simpson said. “So we’ve just got a really young team we took into Elbert, and we left feeling like we had beaten a good football team.”
The Wolves lost nine defensive starters from last year’s state runner-up, yet with the help of a driving rainstorm, the new-look unit clamped down on Elbert County’s Tyshon Dye, limiting one of the state’s top running backs to 66 rushing yards.
“The second quarter was unbelievable,” Simpson said of the storm that sat over the Granite Bowl on Friday. “It was just hard. But what was exciting is that we held a really good running back to under 70 yards and played really solid in special teams with the exception of one turnover. The great news was how we responded to the turnovers and the adversity, and that the kids were excited to go back out and play and make up for mistakes.”
And the Wolves have already had their share of adversity, losing multiple starters to injury in the last week.
Simpson declined to give specifics, but said in addition to injuries to linemen who were lost in practice last week, more went down against the Blue Devils.
“But that’s football,” Simpson said. “It’s the next man in.”
While the Red Elephants came out of their opener relatively healthy, the mistakes that plagued them against West Forsyth were troubling to Miller.
“We had 78 mental mistakes on defense,” Miller said. “We haven’t had 78 mental mistakes in one game since Coach (Jim) Pavao’s first year here. It was just one of those nights, and give credit to West Forsyth. Some of the things they did caused those mistakes. But we had alignment problems and things that just shouldn’t happen to a veteran team.”
Miller said the Red Elephants may tinker with their defensive personnel and “get back to basics” in preparation for a Buford.
“We’re going to see a totally different team that will bloody your nose if you let them,” Miller said. “They’re going to come right at you and smashmouth you, and if you’re not ready for it, it could be a long night.”
Michael Pittman, a Gainesville linebacker, knows exactly what to expect from the Wolves. Not only has he played against them the last two years, he was part of the Buford program as a freshman, picking up a state title ring in 2009.
He said it’s the Wolves’ dedication that makes them a formidable opponent year in and year out.
“They definitely go at it — a lot,” Pittman said. “We had to be at the school at 5:30 (a.m.) every day before school, then weight training during school, then film before practice and going at it again. That was every day, except for Fridays.”
Pittman added that the Red Elephants’ quickness on defense will be key to stopping the vaunted Buford running game.
“We’re going to have to beat them with speed — we have to,” Pittman said. “Because we may not have the size they have.”
Also looking for a bounceback week is Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson. The junior is one of the state’s top-ranked prospects but was hot and cold against West Forsyth, accounting for more than 350 yards of total offense, but turning the ball over four times.
Senior receiver Tray Harrison said the Red Elephants let the size of the first-half deficit — 32-15 — affect their style of play too much.
“We got too far behind and we tried to come back too fast,” Harrison said. “We tried to do it all at once instead of playing series by series, and that got the best of us.”
Like his coach, though, Watson, who made his varsity debut as a freshman against Buford in the 2010 season opener, said the Red Elephants learned from their loss.
“We’ve got to capitalize on the little things,” Watson said, “and when we get in the red zone, we have to score.”