GAINESVILLE, Ga. — Call it what you will, but Gainesville’s 34-21 come-from-behind win over North Forsyth at City Park Stadium on Friday for the Region 8-6A title proved that they may be ready for bigger things to come.
First-year coach Josh Niblett called it destiny.
“This game was supposed to be like this,” he said after a vibrant on-field celebration. “These kids have been through so much. To be down like that and be able to come back, it just seemed like destiny that it should end this way.”
After steamrolling through most of their first eight opponents, the Class 6A fifth-ranked Red Elephants (9-0, 5-0 Region 8-6A) needed, and expected, just the kind of test they got from the Raiders (6-3, 4-1 Region 8-6A).
And North Forsyth looked in firm control at 21-7 following a 39-yard touchdown pass from West Roberts to Karson McBrayer midway through the third quarter. It was Robert’s third TD pass of the game at that point after a 4-yard scoring toss to Cooper Eglian and a 3-yard TD pass to Logan Curry in the second quarter for a 14-7 halftime lead.
Roberts’ pass to McBrayer capped a 21-point rally after the Red Elephants took a 7-0 lead on a 17-yard TD run from Baxter Wright on their second possession of the game.
That’s when Darius Cannon took over. The senior Gainesville receiver took the ensuing kickoff 99-yards for a score to pull them back within 21-13 and then ignited the passing game with 121 yards on 5 catches in the second half. Late in the fourth quarter he turned a short Baxter Wright screen pass into an electrifying 68-yard touchdown to give Gainesville a 27-21 lead with just 4:18 remaining.
“Coach Riley (Niblett) said to hit the hash and it was open and I was able to get a seam,” Cannon said about the kickoff return. “That was a perfect call (against their defense) on the screen that gave us the lead.”
“The kickoff return was huge for us,” Niblett said. “(North Forsyth) had the momentum and we had to find a way to get it back and Darius did that for us. The rest of the team just played off of that from there.”
North Forsyth did look poised to get one last chance in the final minute but Niblett rolled the dice on 4th-and-6 from the Raiders 23 and Wright connected with Travien Watson on a 23-yard TD pass with 39 seconds left to seal it.
Despite letting the big second half lead slip away, North Forsyth coach Robert Craft said his group also proved they were ready for the big stage.
“Our guys competed and showed they belong on this stage but we just didn’t finish,” Craft said. “We’re disappointed because we know how close it was for us. Gainesville made some adjustments on defense that were effective and in the end they made one more play than we did. But we’re proud of how our guys battled the whole way. We’ll be ready for the playoffs.”
Wright finished 19-of-24 for 281 yards and 1 TD passing for Gainesville. Cannon had 8 catches for 138 yards, added another 8 rushing, and the 99-yard game-changing kickoff return for 245 all-purpose yards.
Roberts was 12-of-18 for 188 yards and 3 TDs for North Forsyth. But their resurgent ground game was stymied for just 53 yards on 31 carries for the game. McBrayer had 54 yards on 22 carries for the Raiders. The rest of the team was held to minus-1 yard on 9 carries. North Forsyth, who already has clinched the No. 2 seed, will close its season next week on the road at Apalachee.
While Niblett meant what he said about destiny, he also knows they have plenty to clean up before the playoffs begin in two weeks, especially next week against Jackson County in their season finale.
Wright threw an interception to help set up one of the North Forsyth touchdowns. They had several errant snaps, including one that led to a fumble and another Raiders touchdown, and they committed 16 penalties for 128 yards.
“We played about the worst half of football you could play in the first half,” he said. “We had opportunities to jump on them and didn’t take advantage of them with penalties and turnovers. We have to clean that stuff up for sure.
“Our deal for the future will be how we come back next week. Will we be professional? Will we give these seniors a chance to make history with an undefeated season?
“We’re not where we want to be yet but we’re not where we were. But we’re going to enjoy this one first.”
N. Forsyth........0.....14.....7......0 -- 21
Gainesville.......7.......0.....6....21 -- 34
G -- Wright 17 run (Guerra kick) 7-0, 5:20
N -- Eglian 4 pass from Roberts (Droze kick) 7-7, 6:29
N -- Curry 3 pass from Roberts (Droze kick) 14-7, 0:45
N -- McBrayer 39 pass from Roberts (Droze kick) 21-7, 5:29
G -- Cannon 99 kickoff return (kick failed) 21-13, 5:16
G -- Cheeks 1 run (pass failed) 21-19, 6:48
G -- Cannon 68 pass from Wright (Reece pass) 27-21, 4:18
G -- Watson 23 pass from Wright (Guerra kick) 34-21, 0:3