Gainesville High now has its own version of wardrobe malfunctions, and although it didn't appear to be the case at the time, those mishaps were the difference in a 28-7 win over Franklin County on Friday at City Park.
The Red Elephants (3-1, 0-0 Region 8B-AAA) were flagged twice in the first half for equipment violations - once for a player not wearing hip pads and the second for a player not wearing his mouthpiece - which resulted in the ejection of head coach Bruce Miller.
Per Georgia High School Association rules, an equipment violation is an unsportsmanlike penalty on the coach, with two unsportsmanlike penalties resulting in an ejection.
Miller, who has never been ejected in his 36-year coaching career, was forced to leave the stadium following his ejection and didn't get the chance to see his team play its best football it has all year.
What he did see, he didn't like.
"We cannot play football without playing emotionally," said Miller, who stated the equipment violation is everybody's fault, but ultimately it falls on him. "We didn't come out ready to play, Franklin County did."
With Miller gone, his defensive coordinator Jim Pavao and senior leaders responded.
Tied 7-7 at the half, the Red Elephants needed just six plays and three minutes to impose their will on the Lions (2-1-1, 0-0 8A-AAA). The six-play drive, which featured a pitch from Deshaun Watson to Devon Pierce while Watson was among a group of tacklers, ended with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Watson to Michael Lorentz.
Watson, who scored on a 14-yard run in the first quarter after hitting Stephen Mason for a 72-yard pass, finished with 210 yards of total offense, including 76 on the ground.
"I brought the whole group and said ‘we got (coach Miller) kicked out, so let's win for him,'" Pavao said. "I felt the defense was playing worried we would lose instead of getting after it."
If getting after it is what he wanted, his defense certainly didn't let him down.
After running 38 plays in the first half, Franklin County was held to seven plays in its first two drives of the second half, with both possessions resulting in punts. The Lions' third possession didn't produce anything better, as Gainesville senior Mike Norman intercepted a pass from Kevin Harris and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown.
"The first thing I was thinking was just catch it," said Norman, who avoided several tackles and received some key blocks en route to the end zone. "Once I got it, I was thinking to get to the end zone."
Norman said he and the rest of the seniors on defense "knew we had to step up and show that we could win."
They did just that on Franklin's ensuing possession.
With the Lions on the Gainesville 8 to start the fourth quarter, the defense forced a fumble that senior Kendrick Millsap recovered in the end zone for a touchback.
"We had a couple big plays and played some good red zone defense," Pavao said. "You're not going to completely stop a team like Franklin County. They bowed up in the second half and that was the difference."
In previous weeks, Gainesville would have gone to A.J. Johnson at quarterback to secure a hard-fought win, but it didn't need to do so against the Lions.
The trio of Markece Robertson, Pierce and Watson ran the ball 13 times on a 15-play, six-minute drive that ate up the majority of the fourth quarter and ended with an 8-yard touchdown run by Robertson.
"Our offensive line did a great job on that final drive," Pavao said. "It was good to see Pierce and Robertson step up."
Pierce finished the game with 74 yards (23 on the final drive), while Robertson had 47 yards, 40 coming during the drive.
Franklin's lone touchdown came with 26.2 seconds left in the first quarter when Harris scored on a 14-yard run. Harris finished the game with 74 yards rushing on 18 carries, but he went just 2-for-5 passing for 14 yards and had two interceptions, the final one coming late in the fourth quarter that secured what most would classify as an ugly win.
"We haven't played our ‘A game' yet," Norman said. "As long as we come out with a W, that's all that matters."