Throughout the 2022 high school football season, Gainesville has kept finding a way to either break open close games or to hold on at the end.
Friday night’s Class 6A state semifinal against Roswell fit into the latter category.
After building up as much as a three-touchdown lead late in the first half, the No. 4 Red Elephants had to fend off the third-ranked Hornets.
And twice in the fourth quarter, a fatigued Gainesville defense found a way to turn Roswell away on downs in the red zone — the first time with 5:36 to play, and the second with less than a minute to play to hold on for a 35-28 victory at Walter H. Cantrell Stadium in Powder Springs.
Baxter Wright had a near-perfect night, finishing 16 of 17 passing for 237 yards and four touchdowns, while Naim Cheeks finished with 14 carries for 128 yards and Darius Cannon added four catches for 62 yards and a TD and returned a kickoff for a score.
But despite allowing Roswell (12-2) to roll up 377 yards of total offense, it was the Gainesville defense that made some of the most critical plays — including seniors Ja’Quez Sims and Elias Ballard in the red zone on the final drive of the game.
That combined effort will send the Red Elephants (14-0) to the state championship game for the first time in 10 years, and give them a chance to claim the program’s first title since that time when they take on top-ranked Hughes next Friday at 7 p.m. at Georgia State’s Center Parc Stadium.
“You can say what you want, but God’s had his hands on these kids all year long,” said Gainesville coach Josh Niblett, who is taking the Red Elephants to the finals in his first year as head coach, after winning six state championships in Alabama over the past 22 years. “The way he gives them the energy and the effort and the thought process and the choices and the heart and the will and the physicalness to play with (is amazing). Our guys … don’t flinch.
“We did give up a few plays defensively, but our guys just bowed their back. You’ve just got to keep playing (and) make them snap it again. That’s what we said all week. Don’t give up big plays and make them snap it again, and see if we can get an opportunity to make something happen. And we were able to do that. I can’t say enough about these players and coaches.”
The game got off to an inauspicious start for Gainesville, with Roswell taking the opening kickoff and needing just six plays and 2:13 to jump out on top on a 24-yard touchdown pass from K.J. Smith to Ethan Crite.
But the Red Elephants needed even less time — just 11 seconds — to pull even at 7-all, with Cannon taking the bouncing kickoff at his own 6-yard line and heading up the middle, and then making a cut down the left sideline for a 94-yard TD return.
“I trusted in my coaches,” said Cannon, who also had a big kickoff return for a score in the Region 8-6A championship game against North Forsyth late in the regular season. “They always tell me to hit it up the hash, … and it opened up. I was like, ‘Hey, it’s wide open, so I just hit it right up the gut.”
Quick strikes were the order of the night in the first quarter for Gainesville, with Cheeks making another cutback to roll 68 yards on the next offensive possession to get the Red Elephants into the red zone.
Three plays later, Wright looked as if he would try to run the ball on a keeper, but instead floated a pass that Sky Niblett made an acrobatic, one-handed catch for a score that put Gainesville up 14-7 with 6:14 left in the first quarter.
After the defense forced Roswell to turn the ball over on downs on the Hornets’ next possession, the offense took its time a little more on its next turn with the ball.
The Red Elephants marched 76 yards in eight plays, with Wright hitting Cannon on a 23-yard scoring strike for a 21-7 lead with 9:52 left in the first half.
Gainesville then took a punt at their own 35 and went 65 yards in eight plays on its next drive, with Wright hooking up with another of his receivers, this time Tre Reece — on a 21-yard TD pass to extend the lead to 28-7 with 3:49 left in the half.
Penalties extended Roswell’s final possession of the half, and the Hornets took advantage when Smith hit Chris Elko on a 26-yard scoring strike with 56 seconds left, but the Red Elephants still took a 28-14 lead into intermission.
However, Roswell had already shown it was capable of erasing a big deficit in last week’s quarterfinals by erasing a 24-6 halftime hole to score a 42-34 win at No. 2 Thomas County Central.
Sure enough, the Hornets began to chip away when Smith found Crite behind the Gainesville secondary for the second time on the night, this time catching him in stride for a 73-yard score to cut the Red Elephants’ lead to just 28-21 with 4:52 left in the third quarter. Smith finished the night 18 of 32 for 270 yards and three TDs, with three of those completions going to Crite for 111 yards.
Once again, however, Gainesville had an answer as Wright found Travien Watson for his only four catches of the night on a seven-play, 83-yard drive.
The march ended with the junior receiver taking a 30-yard catch and run to the house to give the Red Elephants some breathing room at 35-21 with 2:05 left in the quarter.
“It was a big point in the game,” Wright said. “I’m super happy for Travien because I hadn’t been able to find him earlier in the game. That was important because our defense played lights out against a really good Roswell offense late in the game.”
That effort would be needed because before the defense came up big, Smith marched the Hornets 65 yards in eight plays late in the third quarter and into the fourth before Nykahi Davenport found the end zone from 3 yards out to bring his team to within one score again at 35-28 with 9:47 to play.
Twice more in the final frame, the Hornets found their way into the red zone with a chance to pull even, but were twice turned away by the Red Elephants.
The first time came after Gainesville’s first turnover in the entire playoffs, a fumble at its own 28 with 9:20 left.
But after Roswell moved as deep as the 14, the Red Elephants stiffened with the help of a third-down combined sack by Jeremiah Telander and Kadin Fossung, and then forced Smith into an incompletion on the next play to turn the ball over on downs with 5:36 remaining.
Then after getting the ball back with 3:20 left, Smith found Chris Elko all alone behind the defense and hit him, but while the senior made the catch, he couldn’t stay on his feet and fell 3 yards short of the end zone.
That would prove critical because after a 2-yard run by Davenport made it second and goal at the 1, Sims made what was perhaps the play of the game.
With Elko lined up at the tail in a wildcat formation, the snap to him was a little high, which allowed the Gainesville senior to stretch the play out wide to the right and take Elko down for a big 9-yard loss.
“We just had to make a big play to make it to (the) state finals,” Sims said. “We just had to play together and do what we’ve got to do. I just saw (Elko) running and knew I had to make a big play.”
After an incomplete pass on third down, Roswell had one last chance, with Smith looking for a receiver in the end zone.
But this time, it was Ballard who was able to get between his man and the ball to allow the ball to fall harmlessly to the artificial turf with 25 seconds left, allowing Gainesville to take possession and put the game away and make its reservation for the first time since that program’s only championship a decade ago.
“To go to state our senior year, it means everything,” Sims said. “It would mean everything (to win it all). We want it.”