1115SimsAUDListen to Gainesville quarterback Blake Sims talk about the win.
1115MillerAUDListen to Gainesville coach Bruce Miller talk about his team's first-round win.
1115JonesAUDListen to Gainesville's Tai-ler Jones talk about his performance on Friday.
When the offense is clicking, there’s little opposing defenses can do to stop the Gainesville Red Elephants.
That’s why when Oconee County (4-7) jumped out to an early 14-0 lead, the fourth-ranked Red Elephants (11-0) never worried.
Instead, they reeled off 35 unanswered points en route to a 49-21 win over the Warriors in the first round of the Class AAA state playoffs Friday at City Park Stadium.
The win sends Gainesville to the second round, where it will play host to Cartersville.
"We had to get our heads straight," said wide receiver Tai-ler "T.J." Jones, who finished with 146 yards receiving and a career-high three touchdowns. "We might have underestimated them since they had a 4-6 record, but once we got past that, we focused on our game plan and did good."
That game plan was simple: Throw the ball to Jones, Nick Williams (three catches for 123 yards, two touchdowns) and Juwon Jeffries (five catches for 48 yards), and run the ball with sophomore Devon Pierce, who finished the game with a career-high 138 yards on 24 attempts and a touchdown.
"It was a great, awesome feeling," Pierce said of his career night. "Our offensive line did most of the job pushing people out of the way."
Not only did that offensive line provide Pierce with running lanes, but it kept Oconee’s defense away from quarterback Blake Sims for most of the night. Sims, who finished the game with 336 yards passing and four touchdowns, left in the third quarter with a back injury.
"My back’s been hurting all week, but that didn’t stop me," Sims said. "I always want to go to war with my team because this is a real good team. Anybody would like to go to war with them."
While not necessarily a war, Gainesville realized from the get-go that it was in for a battle.
Oconee quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who has verbally committed to Georgia, started the game a perfect 12-for-12 passing for 128 yards and two touchdowns to give the Warriors a 14-0 lead.
But Gainesville’s offense responded. On the first play of its ensuing possession, Sims found Johnson in the middle of the field and the big tight end rumbled 80 yards for the Red Elephants’ first touchdown.
"Everybody looked at each other and said, ‘it’s time to play,’" Sims said of what transpired after the score. "That play set the tone."
Especially for the defense, which along with its normal contributors A.J. Johnson, Phillip Gaines and Austin Calvert got the biggest play from one of the offensive stars, Jones.
With the game tied 14-14, Mettenberger completed a pass to Scotty Woodall, who raced down the field toward the end zone. But Jones, who played safety for the majority of the game, caught up to him, stripped him of the ball and recovered the fumble to prevent a sure touchdown and give the ball back to Gainesville.
"At first I was thinking, ‘Oh man, he’s gonna score,’" Jones said. "But then I saw he had the ball out from his body and I tracked him down and stripped it."
Miller was not surprised that Jones made that game-changing play.
"There’s an old saying that big-time players make big time plays in big time games," Miller said. "That’s exactly what he did."
With the ball back in the Red Elephants’ possession, Sims led Gainesville on a five-play scoring drive that ended with Johnson’s second touchdown.
Oconee tried to answer the score, but Gaines picked off Mettenberger’s pass in the end zone on its next possession, and Jones intercepted a hail mary pass at the end of the half to maintain a seven-point halftime lead.
"We knew if our defense kept putting the ball in our hands we would catch up," Sims said of the first-half comeback.
Not only did the Red Elephants catch up, but they passed Oconee County for good in the second half.
Gainesville came out of the half like a team on a mission, recording five consecutive first downs and marching down 80 yards (on 12 plays), with the final 26 ending on Jones’ second touchdown of the game.
After Teryan Rucker scored a touchdown to give the Red Elephants a 21-point lead, Sims exited the game and handed the signal-calling duties to sophomore Mike Norman.
Norman filled in admirably, leading the Red Elephants on two more touchdown drives.
"Mike Norman stepped in there and made some plays and ran the offense like a pro," said Miller, who said he wasn’t surprised by Norman’s performance.
"Mike’s a very good quarterback," he added. "I knew if he had to step in there he could handle it.
"I’ve known it all year but no one else did."
Norman’s ability to keep the game out of reach vaulted Gainesville to the next round of the state playoffs, where it will take on a Cartersville team that beat St. Pius X 34-31 on Friday.
Not knowing who his next opponent would be, Miller said that just having the opportunity to keep playing at home is a big advantage.
"Anytime they gotta get on a bus to get over here, I don’t care if they go Trailways or the yellow buses, it doesn’t matter, it’s big," he said.