Peach County 13, Gainesville 12
Difference maker: Luke Crowell. The senior RB/LB scored a touchdown, intercepted a pass and knocked away the would-be game-winning two-point conversion.
Stat that matters: 77. Gainesville failed to get its running game going after rushing for an average of 256 yards a game in its last two contests.
Turning point: On a two-point attempt with no time left on the clock, Crowell knocked down a pass intended for Tai-ler Jones that would have won the state title for Gainesville.
The Red Elephants fell 3-yards and one-point short of the first GHSA state title in the program’s 96 years of football, losing 13-12 to Peach County in the Class AAA championship game Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Trailing by seven points with no timeouts and only 50 seconds left in the game, the Red Elephants took over possession on their own 34-yard line and drove 66 yards to pull within one on a 25-yard Blake Sims-to-Michael Lorentz touchdown pass as time expired.
The touchdown made the score 13-12, and Gainesville coach Bruce Miller opted to go for the two-point conversion and the win — the Red Elephants had missed their earlier extra point attempt.
"There was no doubt in my mind," Miller said. "We had already decided to go for two. I felt like the momentum had slid our way big time, and if it went to overtime it might not go in our favor."
On the two-point try, Sims looked to his favorite target, Tai-ler Jones, on a slant route, but Peach County linebacker Luke Crowell leaped and knocked the pass off track, sending the Trojans into a wild celebration and breaking the hearts of Gainesville fans, players and coaches.
"If the linebacker doesn’t tip the ball, that’s our win," Miller said. "The slant was there. It was that close."
But it wouldn’t have been so close if not for Gainesville’s second consecutive shocking comeback.
The Red Elephants (14-1) advanced to the state title game by rallying from a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit in a semifinal win over Flowery Branch last week, and they trailed throughout in the championship game.
Peach County (15-0) led 10-0 as the fourth quarter began, and took a 13-6 lead when Rustin Evatt connected on a 25-yard field goal with 3:04 left.
On the possession, the Trojans got as close as first-and-goal at the 2 before the Red Elephant defense rose up and turned them back to force the field goal.
On the ensuing possession, Gainesville’s hope of a comeback appeared to be dashed when Jontavious Davis intercepted Lorentz on a double-pass at midfield with 2:47 remaining.
Gainesville had only one timeout left, but the defense again held firm and forced a punt to set up the final touchdown drive for the Big Red offense.
"Our kids fought and fought," Miller said. "I’m so proud of them. They could’ve quit down there on the goal line and let them score a touchdown and that would’ve been it.
"But when the whole world seemed like it was against us, we fought and made a comeback."
The almost fateful drive began when Sims zipped a 21-yard completion Jones, moving the ball into Peach County territory. Two plays later, the prolific senior duo hooked up again, this time on a 25-yard pass that moved the ball to the 20 with 29 seconds left.
Sims was sacked on the next play, and the clocked ticked all the way down to five seconds before Sims took the snap and fired a pass that stuck a well-covered Lorentz in the chest, and Lorentz held on despite being hit has the ball arrived and the clock expired.
It was almost a comeback for the ages.
Instead, it ended in anguish for the Red Elephants.
"Three yards kept us from the state championship," Miller said. "And that’s 3 yards I’ll have to live with until I’m an old man."
Miller can take solace in the resiliency his team showed in the second half.
After Peach County chewed up big chunks of the clock in the first two quarters, the Gainesville defense, which lived up to its billing as one of Class AAA’s best, made yards hard to come by.
The Trojans had 184 yards of total offense in the first half, but added only 69 yards the rest of the way. Gainesville had five sacks in the game, including two by senior Taylor Stowe and 1 1/2 by Thomas Sprague.
Peach County junior running back Travis Richmond led all rushers with 78 yards on 20 carries, while Trojans quarterback Patrick Taylor completed 13 of 19 passes for 159 yards.
Sims led Gainesville through the air (15-for-28, 192 yards) and on the ground (nine carries, 33 yards). Jones finished with eight catches for 130 yards and a score, and Lorentz had 42 yards and a touchdown on four catches.
The Trojans took the lead on a Rustin Evatt 32-yard field goal as the first quarter expired, and Crowell scored on a 9-yard run with 1:39 left in the second quarter.
The third quarter passed with no points scored, but the Red Elephant defense gave the team a lift to start the fourth quarter when Sprague ripped the ball away from a Trojan ball carrier and Tevin Yarbrough recovered the fumble.
On the next play, the Gainesville offense showed its first real signs of life when Sims went deep and found Jones wide open behind the Peach County defense for a 49-yard touchdown, making the score 10-6.
Gainesville’s next possession ended on a fourth-down interception. Again, it was Crowell who came up with the big play for Peach County, picking off the pass deep in his own territory and returning it to the Red Elephant 30 to set up another Evatt field goal.
But what ended up as the decisive kick almost didn’t happen.
Gainesville held the Trojans to 4 yards on three plays, but Peach County elected to go for it. On the fourth-down play, Gainesville senior linebacker Alberto Sanabria read the coming slant pattern and deflected the pass, only to see it come down in the hands of Trojan receiver Isaiah Miller who picked up 9 yards and a first down.
"Our defense played their butts off; they’ve played their butts off all year," Miller said. "The offense had a good year, too. We had a lot of quick strikes, we just came up one strike short."
It was a year that included 14 straight wins and countless thrilling moments. And it almost ended with a championship.But it may be the "almost" that made the season’s only loss so hard to accept.