COLUMBUS — In the end Gainesville just didn’t have enough to dethrone the defending state champions.
Faced with a 21-0 halftime deficit, the Red Elephants scored two quick touchdowns in the third quarter, but the lead proved to be insurmountable as Carver-Columbus defeated the Red Elephants 28-14 on Friday night at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium in Columbus.
"We just didn’t make the plays when we needed to," Gainesville (12-1) coach Bruce Miller said. "There’s no good way to end the season unless you win the state championship. You just have to pick up the pieces and go on."
In the week leading up to Gainesville’s quarterfinal game against Carver, Miller knew that turnovers and giving up big plays would prevent his team from advancing to the semifinals.
Miller was right, as Gainesville committed three turnovers and three big plays in the first half that put the Red Elephants down early.
On its opening drive, Gainesville marched 62 yards but failed to convert on fourth down when Carver’s LeRon Furr sacked Blake Sims to give the ball to the Tigers.
Three plays later, Isiah Crowell broke through the line and scampered 72 yards for a touchdown. He finished the game with 138 yards on 14 carries and two touchdowns.
That was the first of three touchdowns in the first half scored after Gainesville turnovers.
"You can’t turn the ball over and you can’t give up big plays," Miller said. "That’s exactly what happened.
Down but not out, Gainesville came out of the locker room like the fourth-ranked team that it is and ran off two drives that put the defending champs on their heels.
Taking possession after a Carver three-and-out, Sims led the team on a six-play drive that took one minute and 33 seconds and ended with a Tai-ler Jones 12-yard touchdown on a screen pass.
Jones finished the game with game-high 99 yards on nine receptions.
Sims, a junior who finished with 222 yards passing, led the Red Elephants on another scoring drive on their next possession. This time the drive took 1:59 and ended with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Nick Johnson.
"I knew if we scored once we’d have a chance to come back," wide receiver Juwon Jeffries said. "We got on a run but we couldn’t finish."
It looked as if the Red Elephants would be able to finish the comeback. But with less than five minutes remaining in the game and Gainesville driving, a pass by Sims bounced off his intended receiver and into the arms of Carver’s Antonio Carter.
Another turnover, and another big play — a 45-yard touchdown run by Malcolm Chinn — gave Carver the lead for good.
"We told ’em you’ve been fighting all year, don’t quit fighting now," Miller said of his halftime message to his team. "They didn’t quit. We had our chances in the second half but we didn’t capitalize on them."
The loss ends the Gainesville’s perfect season in which it was ranked as high as fourth in the Class AAA Associated Press poll.
Despite the loss, Miller said he learned a lot about his team this year.
"I learned that we are a bunch of fighters and the kids showed great character all year," he said. "You can’t do anything but thank the seniors."
One of those seniors, Jeffries was saddened by the loss.
"I tried to pick my head up but it’s hard," Jeffries said. "It’s a hard loss. It’s gonna stay with me forever."
Despite the tough loss, Jeffries knows that if Gainesville keeps doing what it has been doing, it will end up with more success next year.
"Don’t change anything," was Jeffries message to the underclassmen. "Just keep what you’re doing. Work hard in the offseason and it’ll pay off."
Carver moves on to play Cairo in the Class AAA semifinals next week.