Entering the state playoffs on the back of its first two-game losing skid in five seasons, Gainesville football had every opportunity to panic last week.
These Red Elephants simply aren't interested in drama, however, and showed as much on Friday, putting together their best performance in weeks to hammer Rome 41-14 and wash away the memories of losses to Loganville and Flowery Branch -- the latter denying Gainesville its fifth straight region championship.
Now Gainesville hopes to use its dominating performance as a slingshot to even bigger things in the Class AAAAA bracket.
"Our season's been ups and downs. We had the loss to West Forsyth start of the year, then went on a seven-game win streak and then stumbled up and the end," Gainesville senior lineman Chase England said. "But that's OK, because, as we say around here, this is the season that matters. We said we've got a new start. If we win a state championship, we'd rather have that than a region championship. Right now we're 1-0, and that's all that matters."
Access North Georgia.com sports editor Morgan Lee recently caught up with Gainesville players and coaches to talk about the win over Rome, the state of the Red Elephants and what the second round of the playoffs will bring. To watch a video preview of tonight's second round match-up, simply click "play" below.
Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller believes that "1" was extremely important for a team that had lost some of the rhythm that marked much of the 2012 regular season.
"People don't like to hear me say this, but I think the Loganville game took some confidence out of us. And we were kind of unsure of ourselves going into Flowery Branch," Miller said. "Flowery Branch played good, but we couldn't get on all cylinders, and all of a sudden we did (against Rome), and we started playing like we had been playing earlier in the year. Hopefully we'll keep that up and get even better."
Facing a second-round trip to Kell tonight in Marietta, the Red Elephants (8-3) know they will have to improve in order to march into the state quarterfinals for the fifth straight season -- and for the first time in Class AAAAA.
The fourth-ranked Longhorns (10-1) enter the showdown as Region 7-AAAAA champs, having not lost at home since 2010 and just three times since coach Derek Cook took over the program in 2008. And while Gainesville has not won on the road in the postseason since 2004 (in the first round over McNair), Cook says history will play no part in tonight's battle.
"You hear about Gainesville hadn't won on the road in the playoffs since 2004, and that means absolutely nothing," Cook said. "That's something that belongs on the back of a trivia card. It has no bearing on the game that night."
What tonight's showdown will hinge on is the play of two teams that bear striking resemblances, as both the Red Elephants and Longhorns rely on speed and playing in space.
"Offensively we're a spread team. We'll run it or throw it, kind of similar to Gainesville -- minus having that incredibly gifted dual threat quarterback," Cook said. "We've got some talented, athletic wide receivers, just like Gainesville. We've got some running backs that are fast and quick, just like Gainesville. We aren't very big on the line but we're scrappy, just like Gainesville. And on defense it's kind of the same thing. We make our living on speed, just like Gainesville."
Kell features Matthew McGuigan at quarterback, and while the 6-foot-1 junior may not be able to break off long runs like Red Elephants signal caller Deshaun Watson (954 yards rushing and 14 TDs -- along with 2,823 yards passing and 38 TDs against 7 interceptions, while completing 70 percent of his passes), he is just as capable of beating opposing defenses. Just ask Southwest DeKalb, whom McGuigan torched for the game-winning touchdown pass -- a 32-yard strike to Julian Burris -- with less than a minute to play in a 19-14 victory.
The Longhorns, who average 31.2 points per game, also feature two-way playmakers Brendan Langley (cornerback/wide receiver) and Quincy Mauger (safety/receiver), both of whom are committed to Georgia.
The Red Elephants' defense enters the showdown allowing just over 21 points per game -- though the Loganville and Flowery Branch losses account for some of those lofty numbers, as well as a 32-30 loss to Class AAAAAA top 10 West Forsyth in the season opener (in its other eight games, Gainesville is yielding just 15 points on average). And senior safety Fred Payne believes he and his teammates are ready for the challenge ahead.
"We had a great bounce back last week, and we asked ourselves, defensively, what is greatness without a struggle?" Payne said. "We know we're going to have ups and downs, but we have to balance it out. We have to keep fighting, keep competing and cut down on missed assignments."
Gainesville's offense enters averaging 43.4 points and feature a number of weapons outside of Watson, including leading receiver Rodney Lackey (48 catches, 788 yards, 13 TDs). Caleb Hayman (33 catches, 539 yards, 9 TDs), Lahius Leverette (30 catches, 438 yards, 4 TDs) and Tray Harrison (30 catches, 415 yards, 3 TDs) are also dangerous on the perimeter, while running backs Michael Byrd (490 yards rushing, 5 TDs) and Jay Gaudlock (316 yards, 1 TD) have also played key roles.
They will face a Kell defense that is allowing just 14.7 points per game and has allowed more than three touchdowns in a contest just twice this season.
In other words, both teams are preparing for a full-on war tonight in Marietta.
"These are the type of games you play for," England said. "As my offensive line coach says, there are games, and there are games. This is one of those games where you get juiced up and ready to go