The drive, the play, the comeback. Three things that will forever be talked about when referencing Friday’s Class AAA state semifinal game between the top-ranked Gainesville Red Elephants and the Flowery Branch Falcons.
Faced with the largest deficit of the season and the offense in disarray, Gainesville (14-0) rallied in the second half, completing the comeback with a 10-yard touchdown pass from Blake Sims to Tyson Smith with 18 seconds left for a 29-21 win and a berth in the Class AAA state title game next Saturday against Peach County.
"It was a bootleg pass," Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said of the game-winning play. "That last drive was incredible and the final play was a great call. I’m glad Blake threw it."
While that play sent Gainesville to the state championship, it would have never been possible without the resilient play of the defense and special teams.
It started with Sims, who took the opening kickoff of the second half 96 yards for a touchdown, and ended with a blocked punt by Thomas Sprague, who recovered the ball in the end zone for the game-tying touchdown.
"It was a dogfight," Sprague said of the game. "It shows you the type of heart we have to battle through the adversity."
No player showed more heart than Sims, who threw three interceptions in the first half, including one that Rodney Young returned 50 yards to give Flowery Branch (10-4) a 14-0 lead.
Sims completed 10 of his 18 passes for just 78 yards, but more than made up for that with 134 yards rushing and the kickoff return for the score.
"I just left it on the field, like I said I would," said an emotional Sims, who was forced to change his torn jersey after the first series. "This win means a lot because now we know that we can do anything we can if we set our minds to it."
That’s especially the case for Sims, who pulled Miller to the side during the second half and asked him a favor.
"He told me to put the ballgame in his hands and that’s what he did," Miller said.
But it wasn’t without a fight from Flowery Branch, which used a perfect balance of runs and passes to keep Gainesville’s offense on the sidelines in the first half.
Flowery Branch’s Connor Shaw, who finished with 131 yards on 18 of 27 passing, was the catalyst behind that balance. The senior quarterback capped an 11-play, four-minute drive with a 14-yard touchdown to Robby Boudreau to open the scoring in favor of the Falcons.
Young’s second interception of the game gave the Falcons a 14-0 lead that left the capacity crowd at Bobby Gruhn Field stunned.
"Our kids played their hearts out," Falcons coach Lee Shaw said. "We had an opportunity but couldn’t close it out."
That’s because Sims and the Red Elephants wouldn’t let them.
The ball control that worked in the first half turned to four three-and-outs in the second half that allowed Gainesville to get back in the game and ultimately escape with a win.
"Flowery Branch put up a great fight," Miller said. "They really hung in there and they truly are road warriors.
"Our guys were faced with a crisis," he added. "When we came out of the locker room, I could see the determination in their eyes."
That determination led to Gainesville’s first state championship game appearance since 1982, and puts the Red Elephants one win away from their first GHSA state title.
"What a great feeling to go to the Dome," Miller said. "I can’t even catch my breath."
Flowery Branch’s coach was equally as speechless, saying Friday’s game was not only worth the hype, but it was a type of game that neither team should lose.
"We were on a huge momentum run and the story had to come to an end," Shaw said. "This was as good of a football game in Hall County history and we just came up short."
Gainesville did not, and despite what Miller called "the worst half by Bruce Miller," his players remained confident about doing what they needed to reach the state title game.
"We wouldn’t give up," Sprague said. "We never had a doubt that we would win this game."