Through the first 11 games of the season, two things were a given when it came to Gainesville’s football team: It always had the lead and it always played outstanding defense.
Friday night against Dunwoody, only one of those two were true.
Gainesville found itself trailing for the first time all season after a 33-yard field goal by the Wildcats in the second quarter. But as they have all year, the Red Elephants defense stepped up, scored a special teams touchdown and another on an interception by A.J. Johnson to lead the top-ranked team in Class AAA to a 41-10 win and a berth in the third round of the Class AAA state playoffs.
"We just weren’t hitting on all cylinders early," said Gainesville coach Bruce Miller, whose team will play host to defending Class AAA champion Cairo (9-3) next Friday. "But when you play great defense, you have a chance to win."
The defense of the Red Elephants (12-0) came out of the halftime break like a team possessed, turning four Dunwoody (7-4) possessions into touchdowns.
The first came on the Wildcats’ opening possession of the second half, when Thomas Sprague recovered a fumble that led an 11-yard touchdown run by Tyson Smith.
On the Wildcats’ next possession, Graham Simmons intercepted a pass that led to a 6-yard touchdown pass from Blake Sims to Michael Lorentz to give Gainesville a commanding 27-3 lead.
All memories of the three-point deficit were erased when Taylor Stowe blocked a punt and recovered the ball in the end zone on Dunwoody’s third possession of the second half.
"It happened so fast, all I thought was ‘don’t roll out of the end zone,’" Stowe said.
If Stowe’s touchdown happened quickly, Gainesville’s next touchdown occurred in the blink of an eye. A.J. Johnson intercepted a pass on Dunwoody’s 17-yard line and returned it for a touchdown, diving into the end zone to put an emphatic exclamation point on Gainesville’s stellar third quarter.
"We hit a high point," Stowe said. "It was just one of those things that can happen with this defense."
The defense needed to step up, because Dunwoody’s defense shut down Gainesville (12-0) in the early portion of the game.
Normally a team that scores on its first few possessions, the Red Elephants turned the ball over the first three times they had the ball, and set up a Dunwoody field goal after a miscue on a punt return.
"We didn’t really know what Dunwoody was going to do," said quarterback Blake Sims, who finished with 144 yards passing and a touchdown. "We gotta give thanks to our defense."
After all, it was the defense, specifically a blocked field goal by Thomas Niles in the second quarter, that woke up the offense.
With the momentum finally in their favor, the Red Elephants scored their first touchdown of the night on a 47-yard run from Teryan Rucker and increased their lead to 14-3 on a 6-yard run by Tyson Smith with 45 seconds left in the first half.
"We had some early miscues on offense and defense," Stowe said. "But once we got those ironed out we knew we’d be OK."
The Red Elephants completely shut down Dunwoody’s offense, holding the Wildcats to 106 yards and intercepting its quarterback on three straight passes in the third quarter.
Now, it is on to the third round to take on a Cairo team that won the state title last year and upset Baldwin in the second round.
Playing the defending champs might intimidate most teams, but on a night when the offense wasn’t clicking and Gainesville still won by 31, the Red Elephants remain confident.
"That was last year, this is this year," Sims said of facing Cairo.
What makes the team even more confident is the fact that they are playing in the friendly confines of City Park.
"I’m excited," Miller said. "I love to play at Bobby Gruhn Field."
He should, because the Red Elephants haven’t lost a home game in the last 15 games.