GAINESVILLE — Gainesville did just about everything it wanted against No. 5 Lanier Friday night in the two teams’ season-finale showdown at City Park Stadium with a home playoff game on the line.
The Red Elephants outgained the Longhorns 548 to 483. They pounded out a season-high 402 yards on the ground against one of the top defenses in the state. They held a good Lanier rushing attack to just 145 yards.
The only thing Gainesville didn’t do was finish when it had the chance.
Lanier got a 74-yard bomb from Andrew Blackford to Tyler Washington with 1:23 left to steal a 41-38 victory on the road. It was the third long scoring strike of the game between Blackford and Washington, who also connected on TD passes of 80 and 46 yards in the first half.
“The effort was great. I’m very encouraged because the team battled the entire game. But we gave up some big plays in the secondary and that hurt us,” Gainesville coach Heath Webb said. “It was a great high school football game. But it’s a tough one to lose, for sure.”
The loss also cost Gainesville a chance to play host to its first home playoff game since 2015. The No. 2 seed from Region 6-6A, Allatoona, now awaits the Red Elephants next week in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs.
“I think this game showed we can play with the top teams,” Webb said. “We’ll need to address the secondary and some other things. We’ll be ready.”
Gainesville (5-5, 3-2 Region 8-6A) let a pair of 10-point leads in the fourth quarter slip away as the Longhorns (9-1, 4-1 Region 8-6A) used big play after big play to stay close and then pass the Red Elephants.
Lanier’s Taj Barnes had a 60-yard touchdown run on the second play of the final period after Gainesville quarterback Gionni Williams scored the third of his four TD runs for a 31-21 lead midway through the third quarter.
Williams’s fourth score came just three minutes later as Gainesville pushed its lead to 38-28. Gainesville seemed ready to seal the game after recovering a Lanier fumble on its next possession with just 6:54 left. But they were forced to punt and the Longhorns capped an 82-yard drive with a 20-yard TD pass from Blackford to Cole Thorton to get within 38-34 with just under four minutes left.
The Red Elephants had one more opportunity to seal the game facing a 4th-and-2 from their own 48 after forcing Lanier to drain all its timeouts. But they elected to punt instead of going for the first down.
Lanier needed just three plays as Blackford found a streaking Washington down the left sideline for the eventual game-winner.
However, Gainesville nearly staged the improbable comeback. After converting on a fourth down and then a third down, Williams appeared to have connected with DJ Miller on a 38-yard touchdown pass with 4 seconds left. But Miller was hammered by a Lanier defender knocking the ball from Miller as he landed.
A final Hail Mary pass by Williams on the final play was knocked down by the Lanier defense to seal the victory.
“(Lanier) made some big plays in the fourth quarter,” Webb said. “We just couldn’t get those last few yards on the drive before that but I thought we gave it everything we had.”
Senior running back Dez Brown had perhaps the best game of his career churning out 221 yards on 25 carries as he was pressed into extra duty as JD Brooks was slowed by an injury suffered during the week.
“Dez was outstanding. He had to carry more of the load and is just a tough, gutsy kid,” Webb said.
Williams finished with 141 yards rushing and four TDs and added 146 yards through the air.
It was billed as a battle in the trenches between two of the state’s best lines. The Gainesville offensive front was dominant early as the ground game produced 234 yards by halftime.
The defenses dictated the action early as the Red Elephants forced a quick Lanier punt on its opening drive and the Longhorns stiffened on Gainesville’s first drive forcing a 31-yard field goal by Giovanni Martinez that sailed wide left.
Lanier used that momentum to strike quickly on its next play as Blackford hit Washington on a simple slant route. Washington split the Gainesville defense and sprinted 80 yards for the first score of the game and Cole Thornton added a 2-point run for an 8-0 lead.
The Longhorns stopped Gainesville on downs on its next drive but the Red Elephants forced another Lanier punt and Brown answered with an 85-yard touchdown run to pull Gainesville within 8-7 late in the first quarter.
Gainesville had a chance to add on but Martinez missed his second field goal try, this one from 29 yards. But the defense bailed him out as Donshay Gaither snared a long Blackford pass for an interception after a great pass defend by JQ Drinkard to deflect it.
The Gainesville offense responded again as Williams capped the 70-yard drive with a 3-yard scoring run. But the key play was a 30-yard Williams pass to Walt Dixon to the Longhorns 14.
But Lanier answered that with another quick strike as Blackford and Washington connected on virtually the same slant pass for a 46-yard TD pass to reclaim the lead 15-14 with 3:53 left in the first half.
The third time was the charm for Martinez as he booted a 30-yard field as Gainesville retook the lead 17-15 with just 1:11 left.
But a short Gainesville kickoff and a Washington return gave the Longhorns the ball at the Red Elephants 48. Blackford and Thornton connected for 19 yards to the Gainesville 23 and two plays later the duo combined for an 11-yard TD pass with just 6 seconds left for a 21-17 Lanier lead at halftime.
L -- Washington 80 pass from Blackford (Thornton run) 8-0, 5:13
G -- Brown 85 run (Martinez kick) 8-7, 3:28
G -- Williams 3 run (Martinez kick) 14-8, 4:37
L -- Washington 46 pass from Blackford (Mancilla kick) 15-14, 3:53
G -- Martinez 30 FG 17-15, 1:11
L -- Thornton 11 pass from Blackford (Mancilla kick) 21-17, 0:06
G -- Williams 4 run (Martinez kick) 24-21, 9:38
G -- Williams 8 run (Martinez kick) 31-21, 7:13
L -- Barnes 60 run (Mancilla kick) 31-28, 11:54
G -- Williams 8 run (Martinez kick) 38-28, 8:38
L -- Thornton 20 pass from Blackford (kick failed) 38-34, 2:53
L -- Washington 74 pass from Blackford (Mancilla kick) 41-38, 1:23