GAINESVILLE, Ga. — North Forsyth coach Robert Craft didn’t call his team plain, but when asked to describe the difference between his Raiders and Gainesville, the idea of substance over style quickly came forward.
“There’s nothing flashy about us,” Craft said on Wednesday as they prepared for their winner-take-all showdown at City Park Stadium with the Red Elephants for the Region 8-6A title.
Kickoff is now set at 8 p.m. and can be heard on WDUN AM 550 instead of the usual 94.5 The Lake so that both communities can hear the game.
“We’re not built to blow teams out. We’re a grind-it-out group. We have to play with balance, and we usually can’t make mistakes and win,” Craft added. He continued, “They have playmakers everywhere. They can jump on a team in an instant on both offense and defense. Coach Niblett and his staff have done a great job this year. You can tell that those kids believe now.”
The outward appearance for the Class 6A fifth-ranked Red Elephants (8-0, 4-0 Region 8-6A) could lend to that flashy appearance with the busy Twitter accounts, visits from high-profile celebrities like Herschel Walker, and the lopsided wins.
If explosiveness was all you measured things on, on paper, it looks like a possible mismatch.
Gainesville has outscored its eight opponents 295-90. They have beaten their first four region opponents by an aggregate 165-27. Meanwhile, North Forsyth (6-2, 4-0 Region 8-6A) has had to grind out its four region victories, all by 14 points or less, with a pair of come-from-behind wins to boot.
Gainesville’s junior quarterback Baxter Wright now leads Region 8-6A in passing with 1,684 yards with a Region 8-6A-leading 18 TDs and is completing 73.2 percent of his passes. Senior running back Naim Cheeks is as good a dual-threat as you will find with 953 yards and 12 TDs rushing, which both lead 8-6A, and 367 yards and two more touchdowns receiving. Travien Watson (31 rec., 349 yards), Darius Cannon (17-292), Tre Reece (18-284 yards), Cheeks, and Sky Niblett (13-180) have 19 TD catches combined in what can be an explosive passing attack.
But Niblett said don't believe everything you hear. Looks can be deceiving.
“I thought we came out of the gates and played really well against Marist, and then we didn't start out real fast against Mountain View. We didn't play our best game against Monroe Area, and we really hadn’t put a full game together until probably we started region [their fifth game of the season against Apalachee, a 55-6 win],” he said. “Then we played Apalachee, and we finally put in a full game together, and boom, we go into a bye week, so we lost some of that momentum. Then we played Lanier, it wasn’t a great start, but we win, then we go into another bye week, so it’s been tough getting into a good rhythm offensively this year.”
The Raiders aren’t without weapons, for sure. North Forsyth’s West Roberts is second in 8-6A with 1,668 yards passing and is second in the region with 16 TD passes. But he’s also thrown 11 INTs on the season, which leads the region. Wide receiver Logan Curry is second in receiving in 8-6A with 658 yards and leads in TD catches with 7. After a pair of 100-yard games in as many weeks, running back Karson McBrayer is now fourth in 8-6A in rushing with 492 yards.
And the key to the region title for both teams may well be the Raiders' offense against the Gainesville defense, which is led by leading tackler and All-Access first-teamer Jeremiah Telander, a Tennessee commit. North Forsyth has turned the ball over 17 times already this season (1.9 turnovers/game), while the Red Elephants have been hawkish, creating 21 turnovers (2.63/game), including snatching 11 interceptions.
“You can’t turn the ball over against those guys and have any chance,” Craft said. “We have to win first down and keep ourselves ahead of the sticks and out of those dangerous 3rd-and-long situations. We’ve had times when we’ve been erratic, so we are going to have to play our best game of the season, no doubt.”
Niblett said the Raiders are dangerous because they can adapt to whatever style is needed.
“They came out early in the year, and they were throwing it around in the spread -- and their quarterback can throw it -- but then they switched to a more power run offense with their big (running) back, and they throw in some defensive line guys in front of him. They are really good at adapting to what they need to do to win games. We will have to win first down and get them in some 3rd-and-long situations,” he said.
If a group has the ability to slow down the high-flying Red Elephants attack, it could be the Raiders. The North Forsyth defense is led by linebacker and All-Access first-teamer and Navy-commit Collin Miller, who leads the team in tackles (55) along with senior LB Cole LeRoy. They are part of a formidable front-7, along with senior Air Force-commit Chris Herock and junior Braden O’Shields along the defensive line.
As a group, they have 43 tackles for loss, including 31 sacks, with Miller and Brody Hancock leading the way with 7 each. Herock and LeRoy have combined for 11 sacks so far from the interior.
“You have to play with great discipline against (Gainesville) because they have about 6 or 7 guys that can break a big play at any time,” Craft said. “Our linebackers and secondary will have to do a good job of just doing their jobs and not get out of position. We will have to tackle well. But we really feel like our defense has played well all season, and we don’t have any reason to think they won’t (on Friday).”
But an interesting component for both teams is that, despite being tabbed as the top two teams in the region in the preseason, neither has played a high-pressure game with huge implications on the line in quite a while.
Gainesville is looking for its first region title since 2013 when Bruce Miller was coach. The Raiders have not won a region title since 2001, Miller’s last year in Coal Mountain before moving over to Gainesville.
Niblett said the showdown with the Raiders would not pack the punch it does if not for last week’s road win over Shiloh.
“We had to win that game to set up this game, so I feel good that we got to play a big game before this one,” Niblett said. “We need to put a complete game together, and it's time to do that.
“I feel really good about the kids this week. I think they understand the sense of urgency, and I think they're holding everybody accountable to that, so I’m looking forward to us playing our best game of the season (on Friday).”