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Football: No. 4 Gainesville, top-ranked Hughes both bring prolific offenses into 6A championship football game
Red Elephants lean on stout passing attack, elite senior running back
Gainesville's Naim Cheeks (7) runs against Shiloh on Oct. 22, 2022 in Snellville. Photo courtesy Gwinnett Daily Post

Like a lot of postseason contests in other sports, high school football playoff games are all about the matchups.

From a pure statistical standpoint, the matchup in the Class 6A state championship game would seem to indicate a few scenarios when No. 4 Gainesville (14-0) kicks off with top-ranked Hughes (14-0) at 7 p.m. Friday.

The most likely of those scenarios would seem to be that fans both attending the game in person at Georgia State’s Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta or tuning in via television on Georgia Public Broadcasting should expect plenty of yardage and a lot of points.

That’s an understandable assumption.

The Red Elephants, who are looking for their first state championship since 2012, have gotten better as the season progressed under first-year coach Josh Niblett.

Since 1948, Gainesville has played for nine football state titles.

Gainesville has plenty of weapons like quarterback Baxter Wright (198 for 277 passing, 3,152 yards, 34 TDs), receivers Darius Cannon (40 receptions, 730 yards, 9 TDs), Tre Reece (44 receptions, 704 yards, 12 TDs), Travien Watson (47 receptions, 633 and 4 TDs) and tight end Sky Niblett (29 receptions, 438 yards, 10 TDs) and elite running back Naim Cheeks (214 rushes, 1,775 yards, 20 TDs rushing; 533 receiving yards, 3 TDs).

However, the state’s top-ranked team all season has just as many weapons.

Hughes has rolled up 6,989 yards of total offense during the 2022 campaign, led by four-star junior left-handed quarterback Prentiss “Air” Noland, who has completed 218 of 302 throws for 3,882 yards and 52 touchdowns, senior receiver Jaden Barnes (37 receptions, 1,029 yards, 14 TDs), senior running back Jekail Middlebrook (110 carries for 1,347 yards and 19 TDs) and his junior backfield mate Justus Savage (1,004 yards, 12 TDs), plus an offensive line led by four-star Georgia commit Bo Hughley at left tackle.

Those yards have translated into a lot of scoring, with the Panthers averaging 54.1 points per game and needing just two more points to become the highest scoring team in a single season in state history.

And the Red Elephants have demonstrated capability to keep pace with Hughes on the scoreboard, with 4,690 total yards and averaging nearly 40 points per game.

Gainesville’s coach, who has six state championships to his name in Alabama, doesn’t try to get caught up in the numbers.

“If you try to look at all that stuff, it can kind of become overwhelming,” Niblett said. “(But) we’ve (also) got guys with stats. This game’s not about stats. From an offensive perspective, it’s about scores. It’s about staying on schedule. It’s about establishing your drives and getting some rhythm that dictates the tempo of the game, whether we want to play fast or slow it down.

“Then defense, it’s not about stats. It’s about stops. We don’t care what they get for stats. We want to keep them out of the end zone. Then on special teams, it’s about doing your job. It’s about stealing some yardage, … stealing some field position, and then about stealing a couple of possessions. So for us, you can sit around and read all these stats, but at the end of the … first quarter, we have to know that we’re in a game, and they need to know they’re in a game.”

Coach Niblett has a point, in no small part because both defenses have playmakers on defense, as well.

Hughes features Miami-bound defensive end Joshua Horton (114 tackles, 10 TFLs, 4 sacks, 12 QB hurries), Auburn-committed safety Terrance Love (61 tackles, 3 INTs, 2 PBUs) and Ohio State-bound defensive end/tight end Jelani Thurman (74 tackles, 3 TFLs, 3 sacks, 4 PBUs).

Meanwhile, Gainesville counters with Tennessee-signee Jeremiah Telander (99 tackles, 21 TFLs, 1 INT, 5 forced fumbles) at linebacker, senior defensive lineman Stacy Hopkins Jr. (65 tackles, 18 TFLs, 8 sacks, 3 forced fumbles), sophomore linebacker Carmelo Byrd (62 tackles, 9 TFLs, 4 INTs) and senior cornerback Elias Ballard (46 tackles, 3 TFLs, 3 INTs, 2 forced fumbles).

In addition, there are a lot of intangibles that could give either team a boost, one of which is each team’s experience in close games.

Based on this season, that could be an advantage for the Red Elephants, who have been in several close games well into the second half before breaking them open late, including games against quality opponents like Marist (34-23 final), Monroe Area (23-13), North Forsyth (34-21), South Paulding (42-21), Houston County (49-35) and Roswell (35-28).

While Hughes has had close games at halftime each of the last two rounds of the playoffs before busting both wide open in the second half, the Panthers haven’t been tested quite as much, with their average margin of victory 43 points.

With that the case, it could play to Gainesville’s advantage if the game is still close heading into the fourth quarter.

“It’ll serve us well if we make them have to play four (full) quarters,” Niblett said. “That’s what I told our kids. I said, ‘Look, if we get into the fourth quarter (in a close game), we’re going to win it. We’ve just got to get it to the fourth quarter. I think that’s the critical part because they haven’t had to play four quarters.”

On a related note, both teams’ ability to put together scoring bursts after halftime could also be a big factor. Cannon believes he’s identified an intangible that has made the Red Elephants so effective in that area.

“Probably just Coach Niblett’s speeches at halftime,” the senior receiver said. “Everybody listens to that guy, and we all lock in. When he gets mad, everybody knows they’ve got to do their job.”

While players and coaches from both teams likely have their theories on what factors could swing Friday’s game, a handful of people outside both programs have a unique perspective that could prove insightful.

North Forsyth’s Robert Craft is the head coach of one of two common opponents for Gainesville and Hughes, with his Raiders having lost to the Red Elephants by 13 on Oct. 28 and 61 points to the Panthers in the second round of the playoffs.

The way he sees it, Niblett has a point about how much their experience in close games this season could play to Gainesville’s advantage, though he also points out that Hughes has another intangible on its side after the Panthers came just a missed last-second field goal away from taking the 6A title last season in a 21-20 loss to Buford, which should provide them plenty of motivation.

“I think certainly for Gainesville, I don’t think they’re going to back down,” Craft said. “Hughes has certainly been in this position before. They were in this (6A title game) last year, which can be an advantage. But I think for Gainesville, they’ve been in close games with a lot of quality opponents, (which will) help them not back down from a team like Hughes, who have been ranked No. 1 all year and (are) returning to the state championship game and probably has a chip on their shoulder for losing such a tight game last year. … . I think both teams will come into the game with a lot of confidence for both of those reasons.”

As to the other intangible about both teams’ ability to turn up the heat after halftime, Craft has his own theory about why they’ve been able to do so, and why that could be a factor again Friday night.

“I think they both play a very physical brand of football,” Craft observed. “I think both teams get better as the game goes on, and I think that goes back to both teams being very good on both the offensive and defensive lines.

“I think what will happen in these games is they’ll wear you down, and possibly force other (teams) to make mistakes. That allows them to pull forward. And both teams run the football really well, and to have success this time of year in close games, you have to run the ball well. I think Coach Boone (Daniel Williams) and Coach Niblett would agree with that. That’s usually the recipe in these playoff games and … being able to physically wear your opponent down. Both do that very well.”

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