Faced with perhaps its biggest test since the season opener at Marist, Gainesville came up with perhaps its most complete game of 2022 campaign in its second-round Class 6A state playoff game against South Paulding.
Paced by a balanced night from the offense, and timely plays by the defense and special teams, the No. 4 Red Elephants used a key stretch late in the second quarter that carried over to the third to pull away for a 42-21 victory Friday at City Park Stadium.
The Gainesville offense definitely did its thing, with Baxter Wright finishing the night 13 of 18 for 258 yards and four touchdown passes – two each to Tre Reece and Darius Cannon – while Naim Cheeks broke the 200-yard barrier for the second straight week, chewing up 206 yards and two scores on 30 carries.
Meanwhile, the defense came up with a huge effort, holding South Paulding (8-4) FBS prospect and 2,000-yard rusher Jamarion Wilcox relatively in check and forcing two critical turnovers to help the Red Elephants (12-0) into the state quarterfinals for the first time since 2014, where they will welcome Houston County, which scored a 41-31 win over North Atlanta.
“I don’t know (if the team got) an invitation (to the quarterfinals). Our guys earned it, that was for sure,” Gainesville coach Josh Niblett said. “I like the way our kids competed (Friday) night. I like the way they played. I think we’re getting better.”
Both teams had chances to score in the early going, only to be turned away by the opposing defense.
Cash O’Callaghan picked off a Kasen Weisman pass at the Gainesville 22 to keep South Paulding out of the red zone on the first possession of the game.
However, the Spartans’ defense stopped Cheeks for a loss on fourth and 2 from the 34 to force the Red Elephants to turn the ball over on downs on the ensuing possession.
South Paulding finally dented the scoreboard on the next possession when Weisman hit D.J. Reese with 34-yard completion to set up this 5-yard scoring strike to Isaiah Ford to put the Spartans in front 7-0 with 4:00 left in the first quarter.
The Red Elephants answered with a six-play, 99-yard drive following a botched kickoff return by pulling off two big third-and-long conversions in the process.
The first was a 21-yard run by Cheeks on third and 9 from the Gainesville 2 that kept the drive alive.
Three plays later, Wright scrambled to his right and found Tre Reece all alone down the right sideline for an 83-yard touchdown that pulled the Red Elephants even at 7-all with 1:05 left in the opening frame.
South Paulding made two more trips into the red zone in the second quarter, only to see Gainesville dodge both bullets, thanks to key plays by the defense and special teams.
A 56-yard completion from Weisman to Reese became a turnover when Elias Ballard punched the ball out at the Gainesville 9, with Carmelo Byrd recovering the loose ball at the 1 on the second play of the quarter.
Then after penalties and an incomplete pass forced the South Paulding into a 20-yard field goal attempt, Dre Raven sped in from the edge and blocked it, setting Gainesville up at its own 23-yard line with 2:34 left in the half.
“That (sequence) flipped the momentum,” Niblett said. “I told our defense all week, I said, ‘If you can get us two turnovers early, then we’re going to win the game.’ They got them. … I’m proud of them. The stop on the goal line (before the blocked field goal) was really huge.
“It’s what playoff football is. If you don’t put yourself in those situations, and you don’t allow yourselves to play hard (in them), … you don’t earn anything from those possessions. Our guys played their tails off. They never quit. That’s a credit to them. And the way they practiced, that’s a credit to our staff, and a credit to how our kids play the game.”
Gainesville responded by marching 77 yards in nine plays, with Wright hitting Darius Cannon on a 28-yard scoring strike down the left sideline with 25.9 seconds left in the half, sending the Red Elephants into intermission with a 14-7 lead.
And in the second half, the Red Elephants began to take control on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
Wright capped the opening drive of the third quarter — a seven-play, 69-yard march — found Reece on a corner route for a 14-yard TD that gave Gainesville breathing room at 21-7 just 3:20 after the second-half kickoff. Reece finished the night with five catches for 154 yards.
Then on the team’s second offensive possession of the third quarter, Cheeks took over, with a 46 yards on four carries, including the final seven off the left tackle for a score that opened up the Red Elephants’ lead to 28-7 with 2:00 left in the period.
“The biggest key (Friday) night was just (to) keep going,” Cheeks said. “You fight through adversity. You know there’s going to be a lot of … stuff (happening). You just get up and win the next play.”
And while the defense gave up a few big plays, like Hayden Jackson’s 72-yard touchdown run on a reverse that cut the lead to 28-14 with 1:54 left in the quarter, it was able to limit those bursts, particularly from Wilcox, who has offers from multiple Power-Five conference schools like Kentucky and Ohio State, to 86 yards on 21 carries, about 100 yards below his per game average.
“We just played our game, honestly,” said senior defensive lineman Stacy Hopkins Jr. “We know that (Wilcox) is a dynamic running back, but we just focused on him, and we just stopped him.”
Even after the Spartans managed to pull off a big play like the Jackson TD run, or Weisman’s 3-yard TD pass to Gabe Bobbitt with 3:39 left, the Red Elephants had an answer.
First, Wright found Cannon for the second time in the end zone, this time with 8:00 remaining to push the lead to 35-14, and Cheeks delivered the exclamation point with his 16-yard TD run with 48.3 seconds left to close out the win.