To take a superficial look at the combatants in Friday’s Class 6A state football semifinal between No. 4 Gainesville and third-ranked Roswell, it would seem the game couldn’t be much more evenly matched.
The Red Elephants (13-0) and Hornets (12-1) share almost identical numbers in total offense (5,816 to 5,785), average points scored per game (40.15 to 41.92) and average points allowed (14.46 to 14.15).
They also share a bunch of playmakers on both sides of the ball, like Gainesville’s Baxter Wright, Naim Cheeks, Darius Cannon, Tre Reece, Travien Watson, Sky Niblett, Jeremiah Telander, Stacy Hopkins, Carmelo Byrd, Elias Ballard and Dre Raven, plus Roswell’s K.J. Smith, Nykahi Davenport, Christopher Elko, Ethan Nation, Dylan Williams, Zeke Moore, Mark Trigg, Chase Forrest-Morrison, Stone Smith, Jordan Beauram and Kobby Sakhi-Prah.
And both Red Elephants coach Josh Niblett and Hornets coach Chris Prewett agree that the two teams also share a lot in comment in general game plans, which should make Friday’s 8 p.m. kickoff intriguing for the fans at McEachern’s Walter H. Cantrell Stadium in Powder Springs.
The game will be broadcast on Peachtree TV.
“Yeah, I’d have to agree with you on that,” Niblett said when asked about the similarities between the two teams. “Schematically, I think offensively we’re a lot the same. They’re a lot of 11 personnel. They’ll get into some 12 personnel. They’re going to run some zone, run some counter. Their quarterback (Smith) is what makes them go, and they’ll take shots down the field, and they’ve got some guys who can go get it (especially Elko, Nation and Williams). So yeah, I agree on that.
“Defensively, we’re a little different (from each other), but from the aspect of what they’re trying to do and how they’re trying to get to it, it’s a lot of the same as far as us. It’s going to be a matchup. It’s going to be a really good matchup, but … it’ll boil down to the same things it boils down to every week.”
This season, Gainesville is in the state semifinals for the fifth time since 2009, while Roswell has made the fourth round of state four times since winning it all in 2006.
There isn’t much, if anything, about Niblett’s assessment Prewett will dispute, including that final part about the game boiling down to many of the same keys.
In that respect, scouting an opponent so similar to one’s own has its advantages in terms of preparation, though as Prewett also points out, there isn’t much that either team hasn’t already geared up for already by this stage of the season.
“We’re talking about Game 14 (of this season),” Prewett said. “I’m sure (Gainesville) has seen it all, just like we’ve seen it all by this point. So being able to have that call back to some of the stuff we’ve seen earlier in the year helps.
“Being able to go against … something very similar definitely helps also. It’s not like a brand new thing like trying to defend the triple option or an I-formation team or things like that. It’s pretty normal like what both teams run offensively.”
That said, as similar as Gainesville and Roswell are, there are some specific aspects of the game that Niblett and Prewett agree will be rather unique to their respective teams.
For the former, that means cutting down on the occasional major breakdowns.
The good news for the Red Elephants have done a much better job lately of cutting down on miscues like turnovers — they’ve committed only one since the final game of the regular season — and penalties — they were only flagged five times in last week’s quarterfinal win over No. 10 Houston County after averaging in double digits throughout the season.
However, Niblett has focused a lot on the team’s deep-pass coverage, something that three straight playoff opponents have exploited to varying degrees, and something Smith, Elko, Nation and company are capable of helping Roswell do if the Red Elephants aren’t careful.
“Defensively, we’ve got to keep the ball in front of us,” Niblett said. “We can’t let (Roswell) just throw balls over the top of us continuously all night. And we’ve got to make them one-dimensional. We’ve got to be able to stop the run.”
But it’s not just the defense that Niblett and his staff are looking to fine tune.
A specific area of emphasis this week is working with the offense when it starts deep in its own territory and special teams in helping keep Gainesville on the positive end of the field-position battle.
“These guys (Roswell) don’t need any help like last week’s team (Houston County),” Niblett said. “These guys are very efficient. Very, very good on offense. You don’t score 36 points in the third quarter (like last week’s quarterfinal win 42-34 at No. 2 Thomas County Central) and not be a good offensive football team.
“So we can’t help them. Last week, I think the first two scoring drives Houston County had started at the 32 and … the 30. We can’t do that (again). That’s why I was saying we need to be good on special teams. … They don’t need any help, so we can’t give them any help. We’ve got to make them earn everything they get. Then when we get an opportunity, we need to be opportunistic. We’ve got to complement each other.”
From Prewett’s perspective, the Hornets’ most important keys to victory are more general.
“I think if we can play our brand of football and just make sure we take care of the football, stop the run (on defense), be solid in special teams, that’s kind of where our main keys to the game are,” Prewett said. “We have to be able to stay in good situations offensively, eliminate big plays defensively and make sure we eliminate a lot of the skill guys (they) have at Gainesville and just try to limit as many big plays as possible. Then on special teams, just try to block a couple plays here and there that can change the momentum of games.”