CUMMING – There’s no other way to describe the ending of Gainesville’s first Region 6-7A battle against Forsyth Central on their home turf other than a wild one.
The Red Elephants (3-1, 1-0 Region 6-7A) scored five points in the final 10 seconds of the game -- a field goal and safety -- to beat the Bulldogs, 33-28, at Forsyth County Stadium on Friday.
“A wild one,” Gainesville coach Heath Webb said after the game. “It wasn’t pretty, and we didn’t play our best tonight, but if you can win it ugly, it’s better than losing it pretty.”
So, here’s how it unfolded … Forsyth Central (2-1, 0-1 Region 6-7A) goes up 14-7 in the first quarter. Gainesville scores 21 unanswered points, taking a 28-14 advantage in the third quarter. Then the Bulldogs rally back to tie the game at 28-28 with 6:55 left in the fourth. Now, here’s the really interesting part: Gainesville puts together a clock grinding drive, winding the hands down to just seconds remaining to set up a 42-yard Giovanni Martinez field goal. Central blocks said field goal and returns it for a score only to find a little yellow flag lying back at the line of scrimmage. Yes, leaping over the line of scrimmage to block a field goal in high school football is illegal, and Forsyth Central got busted.
The penalty not only overturned the potential Bulldog winning touchdown but tacked on an extra 15 yards, giving the Red Elephants new life and Martinez another shot to be the hero. Martinez smashed the ball, sailing it through the uprights and beyond for the game-winning field goal -- officially, it was a 30-yard kick, but would have been good from 60.
“The official made a great call on the blocked field goal,” Webb said. “Martinez stepped up there and crushed that thing. He would have hit it from 60 yards.”
But there still was some time on the clock, just over 4 seconds, and, somehow, four more seconds were added, giving the Bulldogs 8 seconds for one last Hail Mary attempt at a fairytale ending. That didn’t happen either as the Bulldogs fumbled the ball out of the back of the endzone for a safety, awarding the Red Elephants two more points.
The other storyline of the night was the play of underclassmen, freshman Baxter Wright and sophomore Naim Cheeks.
Wright, making his first varsity game in place of injured senior quarterback Gionni Williams, showed his youth at times, but also proved he was ready for the big stage, rushing for 84 yards and a touchdown and passing for another 49 yards. He also was key on the Red Elephants’ final march, hitting JQ Drinkard on a 16-yard pass to extend the drive.
“Really proud of Baxter,” Webb said. “Being put in that position, but he’s ready. He was ready. We talked about that in the pregame -- you’re ready for this, you’re made for this, you’re built for this, go play ball. He made some mistakes, and we knew that would happen. The thing that I was proud of was when he made his mistakes, he came back just completely unflustered and just went out there and played ball and made some great decisions. He made some poor decisions at times and good decisions at times, too. What you would expect out of a freshman quarterback starting his first game. Really proud of how gritty he is. That kid is going to be a player.”
Cheeks, on the other hand, was a human wrecking ball, showcasing his swift moves all night. The sophomore running back rushed 34 times for 189 yards and three scores, including the 16-yard run in the second quarter to push the Red Elephants ahead, 28-14.
“Naim, he runs so hard,” Webb said. “He runs with such passion and drive. One guy is not going to bring him down, and he’s going to compete.”
“It was a great line of scrimmage matchup right there with their defensive line – they’re defensive line is pretty dang good. We were hopeful we could win that battle and let Naim run a little bit and take some pressure off Baxter. We got that at times and, at times, we didn’t because of how good their defensive line was.
The game didn’t go as planned early on for the Bulldogs, who fumbled on the second play of their first possession. The turnover handed the Red Elephants the ball at the Bulldogs’ 16-yard line and two plays later, Wright danced into the endzone from nine yards out for his first varsity score a 7-0 Gainesville lead after the Martinez kick.
Central, however, found a spark on the ensuing kickoff when Peyton Streko weaved his way through the Bulldogs’ kickoff unit 89 yards for the kickoff return for a score with 10:19 left in the first to tie the game, 7-7.
Gainesville and Central traded turnovers over the next four minutes -- a fumbled Bulldog punt and a Red Elephant interception. Only the Bulldogs could cash in on the miscues when quarterback Bronson Landreth darted 40 yards around the right side on the option keeper for the touchdown with 7:11 to go, giving the Bulldogs their only lead of the game, 14-7.
Gainesville took control after the lead change, behind the play of Wright and Cheeks. Cheeks scored his first touchdown with less than a minute to go in the quarter, a drive in which he had runs of 10 and 19, and Wright converted a 4th-down-and-6 play on a 19-yard keeper, then completed a 10-yard pass to Drinkard. A play later, Cheeks ripped off a 16-yard touchdown run to tie the game.
In the second quarter, Wright displayed his elusiveness again, converting a 3rd-and-long on a 29-yard run and eventually setting up Cheeks' second score of the half, a 3-yard run, to go up 21-14 at the break.
After a three-and-out on their first drive of the second half, the Red Elephants scooped up a Bulldog fumble on the Central 36-yard line. Cheeks converted a 4th-and-short, Wright eluded a sack to gain 13 yards a play later, then Cheeks walked in from one-yard out 2 minutes later to go up 28-14.
Central's two scores in the second half came off an Eli Ruis 6-yard run with 9:56 left in the fourth and a 45-yard touchdown pass from Graham Long to Noah Chol with 6:55 to go to tie the game, 28-28.
“Good to be 1-0," Webb said. "Not the way we exactly drew it up, but it’s good to be 1-0."