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Game of the Week: Gainesville, Habersham Central prepare to battle for an early region victory
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Habersham Central's Michael Babers carries the ball for the Raiders during their win over Chestatee on Sept. 23 at War Eagle Stadium in Gainesville.

Gainesville is in unfamiliar territory after starting the season 2-3 — its first start below .500 through five games since 1999, but Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller isn’t worried about where his team has been as much as what lies ahead of it.

“We hate to lose. We’re not used to losing around here and it hurt,” Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller said about falling to Marist a week ago. “It especially hurt that we’ve lost three out of our first five games. We’ve adjusted, but we know this is a new season.

“We’ve got five straight region games to determine where we fall in the postseason. Like I told our guys, people are going to remember these five region games more than they remember your first five games.”

It’s not the start that Gainesville is used to, but it’s the spot it’s in now as the Red Elephants head into region play tonight against Habersham Central in Mount Airy.

The Raiders (4-1) have their first winning season through five games since the 2011 season, when they were 3-2 to start the year.

Habersham Central, which defeated Chestatee 40-14 on Sept. 23 before taking a bye week last Friday, is playing with confidence, rolling into the start of the Region 8-AAAAAA schedule.

“When you’re going into region play, it plays a big role to believe you can win when you have won,” second-year Raiders coach Benji Harrison said. “That’s nothing but to give us confidence. When we play our best game, I feel like we’re a pretty good football team.”

Despite the level of confidence his guys are coming into the game with, Harrison knows his squad will still have to play it’s best game to be successful.

Gainesville quarterback DJ Irons is just 53 yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark passing and has thrown for seven scores this season.

Two weeks ago, Habersham Central was able to get to Chestatee quarterback Storm Yarbrough for three sacks. Tonight, that’s something the Raiders will need to do again.

“We can’t let (Irons) run around free,” Harrison said. “We’ve got to put pressure on him, but, when we put pressure on him, we can’t turn him loose and let him run free. We have to have everybody know what they’re doing. They can really exploit us if we’re not where we’re supposed to be.”

Harrison also pointed out wide receiver Red Davis as a guy the Raiders will have to key in on, saying he’s a good player and is good at making plays after the catch.

“Not one of their receivers is a bad player. That puts pressure on our secondary to know we’re in the right coverage,” Harrison said. “All of their skill guys are pretty solid. They all can run and the thing that scares you about when they have four of them is all of them can catch it and score.”

Habersham Central has some talent to lean on as well.

Quarterback Cole Wilbanks threw for 311 yards and four touchdowns against Chestatee. The Raiders’ signal caller now stands at 1,034 yards and 11 touchdowns with two picks in 2016.

“The quarterback impresses me,” Miller said of Wilbanks. “What they do, they do very well.”

Raiders receiver Jake Jones leads the team with five receiving touchdowns. Trey Hurt has found the end zone three times and receiving yardage leader Aaron Wood has scored twice.

Habersham Central spreads the ball around in the running game, more in the past two games with starter Michael Babers falling to injury on the second play of the game against Franklin County.

“I know he’s a good running back, that’s what I went to see and he got hurt on the second play (against Franklin County),” Miller said. “The question is, can we stop him and can we stop their offense? I’m sure he’s going to be back.

He’s had a week off and a couple of weeks to heal. They’ve been able to steal wins and that tells you they’re not just a one-man team.”

The Red Elephants’ defense will be anchored up front by defensive end Josh Harrison (69 total tackles, five tackles for loss, four sacks) and linebackers Kris Montague (62 total tackles, two tackles for loss, two sacks) and Keith Harris (68 total tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks) as they try to slow Babers in the run game.

“We’ve got to win the line of scrimmage,” Miller said. “We’ve got to play well in the front seven and our back four have to ballhawk. We’ve got to put some pressure on the quarterback. When he has time to throw, he’s pretty good.”

Harrison also sees the battle at the line of scrimmage - on both sides of the ball - to be a key to who wins this game.

For Habersham Central, a win tonight would mean starting the region schedule with a win for the first time since the 2011 season. For Gainesville, a win would be a welcome sight after a tough non-region run.

“It makes it huge that it’s the first region game and you’d like to get this one and be 1-0 in the region,” Miller said. “Everything you put into it, it’s a big ballgame.”

Gainesville is facing Habersham Central for the first time in 15 years. Old North Georgia rivals, Gainesville faced Habersham Central every season between 1972-91. The Red Elephants hold a 13-11 overall series edge.

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