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Class 6A state championship: Spirited second-half rally by Gainesville not enough against top-ranked Hughes
Gainesville's Travien Watson (14) runs after the catch against Hughes in the Class 6A state championship game Dec. 9, 2022 in Atlanta. Photo by Lee Heard For The Times

As much as top-ranked Hughes has been known for being able to score plenty of points this season, its ability to do so quickly and seemingly at will is what has made its offense so dangerous.

No. 4 Gainesville learned the lesson the hard way, particularly during the final 59 seconds of the first half of Friday’s Class 6A state championship game.

A burst of 14 points in that final 59 seconds, which turned what would’ve been a three-point halftime deficit into a 17-point hole, was just too much of a hole for the Red Elephants to climb out of in what turned into a 35-28 Hughes victory at Georgia State’s Center Parc Stadium.

Prentiss “Air” Noland had a huge game, completing 18 of 21 passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns and running for another score, while Jaden Barnes had eight catches for 152 and one of those TDs as the Panthers (15-0), ranked as high as No. 11 in one national poll, secured their first state title.

It also ended a special season for Gainesville (14-1), which got a strong night offensively from Baxter Wright, who was 22 of 34 for 191 yards and two TDs through the air and ran for 53 yard and a score, plus a monster night from Jeremiah Telander, who led all tacklers with 13, including four for a loss and two sacks.

And a state runner-up finish and first trip to the title game in 10 years was the punctuation of a revival season for the Red Elephants’ program in Josh Niblett’s first year as head coach, after the program finished 5-5 just a year ago.

“It hurts,” Niblett said. “It’s supposed to hurt because it means the world to you. And I apologized to (the players) because I couldn’t get them a state championship this year, and I wanted our seniors to go out with a ring. But what they’ve done for this program, the culture they’ve set here, it’s unbelievable.

“It’s always going to hurt, but there will be a time when you can rest a little bit and look back and be proud of what you’ve accomplished.”

Ultimately, the difference was those 59 seconds late in the half.

Gainesville had the score well within striking distance late in the first half despite not taking full advantage of a couple of prime red-zone opportunities.

After the defense held Hughes to a 28-yard Joshua Solano field with 4:04 left in the first half, the Red Elephants went 53 yards in 12 plays and chewed 4:12 off the clock.

But after getting in a first-and-goal situation at the Hughes 4 on a 19-yard completion from Baxter Wright to Travien Watson on the final play of the first quarter, Gainesville could only manage just one more yard on the next three plays.

The Red Elephants then settled for Eric Guerra’s 20-yard field goal to even the game at 3-all just 55 seconds into the second quarter.

Hughes responded with an eight-play, 71-yard drive on its next possession, with Noland hitting Thurman on a 20-yard scoring strike.

Telander blocked the PAT, but the Panthers had reclaimed the lead at 9-3 with 7:49 left in the first half.

Once again, Gainesville moved methodically down the field in 18 plays to set up another first and goal at the Hughes 3, with Wright converting two third-downs and a fourth-down on quarterback keepers, and Naim Cheeks moving the sticks on another fourth-down play.

However, Wright slipped on the first-and-goal play to lose 8 yards, and two incomplete passes later, Gainesville had to settle for another Guerra field goal, this one from 28 yards out, to pull to within 9-6 with just 59 seconds left in the half.

But Hughes demonstrated just how quickly it could strike, needing just three plays and 34 seconds to go 79 yards, aided by a roughing-the-passer penalty, to score when Noland hooked up with Jekail Middlebrook on a 15-yard TD pass with 25 seconds left in the half.

Telander blocked the extra point again, but the Panthers had extended their lead to 15-6.

Matters then went from bad to worse when Justin Bonds recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff to set Hughes up at the Gainesville 18.

Noland took the next snap and lofted fade to Jaden Barnes in the left corner of the end zone with 11 seconds left on the clock.

He then hit Thurman in the opposite corner of the end zone for a two-point conversion, and before the Red Elephants knew what hit them, they went into halftime down 23-6.

“Those 14 points were major,” Hughes coach Daniel “Boone” Williams said. “That was the swing we knew we needed. Every game, we’ve always had a swing. The kids responded there I mean, look, take away those 14 points, and we lose.”

Indeed, Gainesville did recover from the shock and struck back by taking the second half kickoff 60 yards in 12 plays, with Wright calling his own number again to score on a 2-yard keeper to pull to within 23-13 with 7:54 left in the third quarter.

In fact, the Red Elephants scored in three of their four possessions in the second half, including Wright TD passes of 7 and 10 yards to Travien Watson with 24 seconds left in the third quarter and 3:59 remaining. Watson finished a game-high 10 catches for 102 yards.

The problem was that Hughes had a quick answer for the first two Gainesville scores, going 74 yards in eight plays before Noland snuck in from a yard out to extend the lead back to 29-13 at the 4:01 mark of the period, and then getting a 72-yard Middlebrook return of the kickoff after Watson’s first TD catch for a TD to make the Hughes lead 35-21.

Another chance to pull closer after a Hughes punt looked promising, with Gainesville moving as deep as the Panthers’ 21.

But a holding penalty on a completion from Wright to Sky Niblett that would’ve set up first and goal from the 4 put the offense behind the sticks and forced a punt.

Still, the Red Elephants kept fighting, with the second Wright to Watson TD cutting the deficit back to one score at 35-28 with 3:59 left.

But a critical third-down conversion after a Telander tackle for a 6-yard loss on first down kept the ensuing Hughes possession alive and forced Gainesville to exhaust its final timeouts, and the Panthers were finally able to run out the clock and secure the title.

As disappointed as Niblett was with the result, he couldn’t be disappointed at all with the effort from his team in twice getting back to within one possession and giving itself a chance late after falling into such a deep hole at the half.

“I was just proud of our kids,”  Niblett said. “At halftime, I told them, ‘Look, just bow your back and let’s go play. And we took that first drive back and scored.

“It is what it is. Our kids played their tails of. We put a plan together and our kids believed in that plan. There were a couple of times we didn’t execute it as well, but that’s part of the game. That’s football. … We said if we can get it to the fourth quarter, I felt like we could win it. We got it to the fourth quarter, … but it’s like I said. It’s part of the game. It’s how the game is.”

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