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'Just one play short,' Gainesville rally ends in loss to Stockbridge, 40-34
After a furious second-half comeback, Red Elephants valiant hearts broken in overtime loss
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Gainesville wide receiver Will Gaydon (15) watches as Gainesville rallies during the first half of Friday's state state playoff at Stockbridge. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Tigers 40, Red Elephants 34, OT

Stat that matters: Gainesville gave up 478 yards of rushing offense, including 265 from Stockbridge running back Jalen Holston.

Game changer: Quarterback Messiah Dorsey steered the ship as Gainesville put together three straight touchdown drives in the second half after not scoring a touchdown in the first half.

Turning point: Dorsey was sacked on third down in Gainesville’s overtime period, and any momentum the Red Elephants had drifted away. Gainesville was unable to stop Holston or Malachi Brown from picking up a score on Stockbridge’s possession.

Next up: Gainesville’s season is over. Stockbridge will next play Glynn Academy in the state quarterfinals.

It didn’t have to end this way.

But now that it has, Gainesville coach Bruce Miller and his team will have an entire offseason to think what might have been.

Trailing 28-6 at halftime, the Red Elephants (8-4) scored four second-half touchdowns to tie top-ranked Stockbridge at the end of regulation, but fell 40-34 in overtime when Tigers quarterback Malachi Brown converted a 1-yard rushing touchdown.

Senior quarterback Messiah Dorsey fumbled on the third play of Gainesville’s overtime possession. That allowed Brown to convert on the ensuing drive to send the undefeated Tigers (12-0) to the state quarterfinals for the fourth straight year.

Stockbridge will play Glynn Academy in next week’s quarterfinal.

Meanwhile, the Red Elephants failed to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 2010.

“It was just an amazing fight,” said Miller. “I hate it for our kids, because they fought so hard, but I take my hat off to them.”

Tigers running back Jalen Holston (32 carries, 265 yards) scored three rushing touchdowns in the second quarter to give Stockbridge its 22-point halftime lead.

Dorsey (24 carries for 185 yards) scrambled for two rushing scores and threw for a touchdown to lead a stunning Gainesville comeback.

But the rally came up short, and the Red Elephants ended their season in Stockbridge.

“It hurts a lot,” said senior wide receiver Martavious Davis, who caught the tying touchdown from Dorsey with 2:52 remaining in the fourth quarter. “We never gave up. We’re family.”

The Red Elephants overcame two rough region losses to Lanier and Clarke Central midway through the season to finish second in Region 8-AAAAA, but looked healthy and lethal in last week’s first-round home win over Alexander.

Gainesville seemed destined for heartbreak when Holston and Brown (16 carries, 135 yards) ripped off touchdown runs of 55 and 33 yards apiece to put the Tigers up 14-6 with 5:03 left in the first half.

Dorsey (20 of 28, 191 yards) barely missed connecting with Davis on a long strike through the middle on third-and-long deep inside Stockbridge territory, which could have produced the tying score.

The Red Elephants punted, and Holston proceeded to run 96 yards the other way on Stockbridge’s ensuing possession. “We struggled in the first half, with some missing assignments, producing in the red zone, it just wasn’t working out the way we needed it to be,” Miller said. “But we solved some of those problems out of the break.”

Did they ever. The Red Elephants scored touchdowns on each of their three opening possessions of the second half.

Wide receiver Tae Turner (three catches, 64 yards) somehow secured a 40-yard catch while sprawled on his back on Gainesville’s opening drive after the ball had bounced off a defensive back’s fingertips.

That catch allowed Dorsey to later hand Gainesville its first touchdown of the game to cut the lead to 28-13.

It was Dorsey again who engineered a 99-yard drive in less than three minutes, capped by a brilliant 25-yard scramble up the middle that cut the lead to 28-19.

“Messiah, what can I say? Play after play, he stepped up for us. He helped us when we needed him to come up big.”

Sophomore linebacker Keith Harris next sacked Brown on fourth-and-6. That allowed Dorsey and running back Chris Byrd (19 carries, 77 yards) to combine carries for Big Red’s third straight trip to the end zone.

Holston and Stockbridge finally responded on the next drive with a touchdown from 2 yards that gave the Tigers a 34-26 advantage, but they missed a crucial point after.

Two drives later, Stockbridge failed to put Gainesville away, giving up a fumble on the 50 with a scant 5:03 on the clock.

“Going into halftime, I thought we had had it under control,” said Stockbridge coach Kevin Whitley. “Some of the kids thought it was over. But coach Bruce Miller is one of the best in the state. Hats off to them, you’ve gotta finish when you’re up like that.”

The Red Elephants took possession at the 50 and picked up three quick first downs before Dorsey found Davis in the end zone for a 5-yard score. The two combined for the 2-point conversion when a trick play had Davis take the ball and make a looping pass to Dorsey as he was being tackled.

The referees ruled that Davis’ back hadn’t touched the turf, the call stood, and the Gainesville sideline exploded.

“It was incredible the way we came back,” said Miller. “We fought so hard. We’ve got to use this as a foundation and build from it. A couple of games this season, it’s gone in our favor where we didn’t give up. We didn’t give up today — we were just one play short.”

Dorsey was sacked on third down, the ball popped out, and Stockbridge needed only a field goal to book a spot in the quarterfinals.

Brown erased all doubt when he ran in from less than a yard out, and the top-ranked Tigers survived a mighty scare on home turf.

It didn’t have to end this way.

But the Red Elephants were unwilling to go down without a fight.

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