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High school football: Gainesville loses a stunner, 24-21, to North Forsyth in home opener
Raiders QB Mullikin threw game-winning touchdown pass, added 2-point conversion in closing seconds
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Gainesville High's Isaac Robinson, left, and AJ Toliver take down North Forsyth quarterback Carter Mullikin Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, during the first half of the Red Elephants' home opener at City Park Stadium.

The Gainesville High football team was on its way to its first win of the season Friday night in Gainesville — or so they thought.

Visiting North Forsyth instead stole it away in what turned out to be a thriller at Bobby Gruhn Field.

Raiders starting quarterback Carter Mullikin threw for the go-ahead, 20-yard touchdown with 20.2 seconds left, and the senior added an acrobatic 2-point conversion plunge as he was spun on contact and outstretched his arm across the plain to grant North Forsyth a thrilling 24-21 victory against the Red Elephants.

The senior signal caller and first-year starter for the Raiders (1-1) orchestrated the four-play, 52 yard game-winning charge inside 1:11 left in regulation, first completing passes of nine and 13 yards to wideouts Nicky Dalmolin and Charlie Aiken, respectively. A critical defensive pass interference call on Gainesville on the 1-yard-line scooted the Raiders up to Gainesville’s 36-yard-line, and on the next snap Millikin threw over the middle to Aiken, who made the sliding grab over a defender in the end zone to give North Forsyth its first and only lead of the contest. Aiken, who came up limping after the play, quickly flung the ball up in the air as his teammates rushed the end zone and the visiting crowd erupted with cheers.

Millikin also put the Raiders on the board in the opening period with a 1-yard quarterback keeper through the gut.

“I am so proud of the guys,” North Forsyth head coach Robert Craft said. “Last week’s game was exactly the same, went right down (the field) with the ball, but didn’t make the play at the end of the game. ...We just kept staying in there, and staying in there. ...I told them before we went out, this game is gonna go all four quarters.”

As for the Red Elephants (0-2), they suffered a heartbreaking defeat on their home turf of City Park Stadium despite a spirited performance on both sides of the ball and sustaining the lead for more than 47 of the 48 minutes of regulation. They lose back-to-back games to start a season for the first time since 1999, delaying Heath Webb’s first victory as head coach for at least another week.

“They are hurting, obviously tremendous competitors and wanted that one badly,” Webb said. “But I hurt for them. I thought they played their guts out. Great ballgame, both sides of the ball.”

Although holding a 14-13 halftime lead and stringing together big defensive plays — including a momentum-building interception from defensive back Rassie Littlejohn at the start of the second half, defensive line's sack for a loss on fourth down to give Gainesville possession with 2:12 left to play — inexperience surfaced for Webb's squad, which gave up one too many critical penalties. Meanwhile, the veteran poise of the Raiders manifested in the final two periods. Raiders kicker Thor Billstrom — who made three 30-plus yard field goals — booted a 36-yarder to cut it to 21-16 with 8:52 to go, and the defense held Gainesville to a pair of three-and-outs to keep things within reach.

"(North Forsyth has) a good offensive football team, and we knew that," Webb said. "Eleven seniors on offense, we knew that was going to be the strength of their team. We wanted to run the football, we wanted to keep their offense on the sideline as much as we could. Just unable to hold on long enough there at the end. ...Gave them one extra possession, and that one extra possession cost us."

Gainesville had solid showings from first-year quarterback Walt Dixon (11 of 17, 148 passing yards, touchdown) and senior running back Quintavious Hayes, who used his quickness and hard-nosed tendencies between the tackles to help the hosts dictate the tempo and elongate drives throughout. Hayes accounted for 193 of the Red Elephants’ 243 rushing yards in the game. Hayes ran for a pair of touchdowns, his second a 17-yard burst through the gut and into the end zone to stretch Gainesville’s lead to 21-13 for the final play of the third period.

“That was another change we made (personnel wise),” Webb said of his back. “I just felt like watching the handful of carries he got against Mary Persons last week, this would be a good-fit game for him. And he ran tough, ran physical.”

North Forsyth’s Honus Wagner also shined from the backfield, as he rushed for 217 yards on 22 carries. Wideout Nicky Dalmolin hauled in five balls for 79 yards. It was a promising result for North Forsyth, which lost star running back Bryson Trigg with a broken collarbone in last week’s game.

Gainesville nearly couldn’t get out of its own way with costly penalties from the early going. Gainesville was flagged six times for 65 yards, including a hold on their opening drive that slowed a charge that spanned 12 plays but resulted in a punt. They still showed plenty of balance on the offense through Dixon, who began by completing his first six pass attempts and put the Red Elephants in contention for their first score on the second drive from scrimmage with a 32-yard connection with Justice Johnson. Starting running back Hayes put Gainesville on the board with the first of two explosive runs of the half, rumbling and shaking off would-be tacklers for a 39-yard touchdown and 7-0 lead at the 3:39 mark of the opening quarter. 

A 65-yard scoring hookup between Dixon and Johnson made it 14-7 midway through the second quarter. Dixon rolled to his left and threw across his body deep downfield for Johnson, who made the grab in traffic and separated for a dash to the end zone.

North Forsyth matched Gainesville at 7-all on its second drive of the game, all made possible by quarterback Mullikin and his favored target Dalmolin. Dalmolin caught a short pass over the middle on a quick slant, then scampered an additional 20-plus yards down field to put the Raiders within striking distance. Mullikin rolled into the end zone on a 1-yard keeper three plays later to cap the six-play drive at the 1:32 mark of the opening quarter.

The pair nearly gave North Forsyth the lead midway through the second quarter. Mullikin rolled out and connected to Dalmolin a second time in space, and Dalmolin appeared to shed off his tackler and score from 48 yards, but a hold erased the potential go-ahead touchdown. 

Gainesville’s defense was otherwise resilient, as it held North Forsyth out of the end zone for the remainder of the half, despite the Raiders twice marching down inside the Red Elephants’ 15-yard-line in the second quarter. The Raiders had to settle for two field goals.

Gainesville will now have to reset for another non-region opponent, Lambert, next Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in Gainesville.

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