High school football: Week 11 previews
Flowery Branch one win from first region title
Stephens County at Gainesville
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Bobby Gruhn Field
Coaches: Stephens County, Travis Noland; Gainesville, Bruce Miller
Records: Stephens County (8-1, 5-0 Region 8-AAA North); Gainesville (8-1, 5-0 Region 8-AAA South)
Key players: Stephens County, RB Chaz Thornton (5-9, 180 Jr.), WR T’omas Colbert (6-0, 180 Jr.), QB Dionte Mayfield (6-0, 180 Jr.). Gainesville, QB Deshaun Watson (6-3, 185 So.), DB Fred Payne (5-10, 170 Jr.), DB Eli Nwefo (5-9, 170 Sr.).
Prediction: GAINESVILLE. The Red Elephants open it up passing the ball and claim their fourth consecutive region title.
When Gainesville senior linebacker J.J. Johnson moved to the school from Towers High at the end of his sophomore year, he wasn't up to speed with the football program's tradition.
It didn't take Johnson long, however, to learn that winning is a very big deal for the Red Elephants.
"There's nothing like the tradition here at Gainesville," said Johnson, who missed his entire junior season with an ACL injury.
Gainesville (8-1, 5-0 Region 8-AAA South) can add to that deep tradition with its fourth consecutive region title if it wins tonight against Stephens County (8-1, 5-0 Region 8-AAA North) in the region championship game at City Park.
With the playoff structure, both have already secured a playoff spot and home playoff game on Nov. 11.
However, the winner of the region championship is at a huge advantage with at least two home playoff games, barring an upset. In addition, it will have a coin-flip chance of hosting a third-round game if they advance that far.
Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said one big thing that sticks out about playing Stephens County is that it is not a rematch from earlier in the season, unlike the 2010 season when the Red Elephants had to beat White County twice for the region title.
With both teams bringing a big offense to the field, this one might just come down to how the defense responds or a special teams play.
"We take a lot of pride in being the top dog in the region and want it to continue," Gainesville defensive back Eli Nwefo said.
Miller said that, while he expects a great game, it won't come without its stress.
"We have a lot of respect for Stephens County," Miller said. "It'll probably be a great game to watch for the fans, but if you're coaching, maybe not."
The tracks of the seasons for both Gainesville and Stephens County are identical.
Not only do they have the same exact record, but both lost the first game of the year: Gainesville lost to Buford, and Stephens County lost to Elbert County.
It's no wonder two of the teams pegged as likely candidates to reach the region championship game in the preseason will play for a No. 1 seed in the playoffs tonight.
"Right now, winning the region title is everything for us," Gainesville senior defensive lineman Joseph Funk said. "We feel like we have to win this game because we're not going to have this opportunity again."
Once you begin to break the matchup down, two players draw the bulk of the attention. Stephens County is led by shifty junior running back Chaz Thornton (1,787 yards, 25 touchdowns).
Thornton has pieced together five consecutive games with at least 200-yards rushing, including 266 yards last Friday against North Hall at The Brickyard.
Miller doesn't want his players to get in one-on-one situations trying to bring down Thornton.
"Thornton is unbelievable," Miller said. "He's got very good speed and the ability to make you miss in the open field."
Nwefo spoke similarly of the Stephens County running back.
"He makes such quick cuts and can make you miss tackling," Nwefo said. "We're going to have to get 11 hats to the ball, and, once we hit him, we've got to take him down."
Gainesville's defensive is confident it can rally together and keep Thornton's impact to a minimum.
"They definitely have a great running back with Mr. Thornton," said Gainesville junior safety Fred Payne. "But we feel good on defense and trust those guys around me."
Meanwhile, the Red Elephants have their own star athlete in sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson (1,896 passing yards, 25 TDs; 451 rushing yards).
He leads a spread offense that has gained 57 percent of its yards through the passing game. Until Michael Byrd's 211-yard effort against West Hall, Gainesville hadn't produced a 200-yard rusher all season.
Stephens County coach Travis Noland said that Gainesville's talent at the skill positions, plus size up front makes this an "uphill struggle" for his program.
"Gainesville's just bigger, faster and stronger than we are," Noland said.
Miller isn't buying any talk about his team being any more physically imposing than Stephens County.
The Indians definitely have a competent defense. In its eight wins, Stephens County hasn't allowed more than 14 points in a game, including three defensive shutouts.
"Stephens County doesn't look that big, but neither do we," Miller said.
Even though the loser isn't done for the season, Miller said it certainly feels like a playoff game and will be a good indication of what to expect going forward into the state tournament.
Gainesville's coach is especially interested to see how his team responds after a down night throwing the ball against West Hall last Friday.
For the Red Elephants, it will be a new challenge after breezing through subregion play with an average margin of victory of 43 points.
"We need a big game," Miller said. "I'll be real interested to see how we respond in a close ball game."