POWDER SPRINGS, Ga. — Quez Sims summed it up perfectly.
“You gotta make plays.”
The senior made perhaps the biggest play of Gainesville’s season Friday night, running down Roswell’s Chris Elko on a huge 2nd-and-goal from the 1 for a 9-yard loss to help preserve the Red Elephant’s nail-biting 35-28 win in the Class 6A semifinals at McEachern Stadium.
Sims' huge stop was followed by a pair of forced incompletions from Hornets’ quarterback KJ Smith, one kneel-down from Baxter Wright, and a wild celebration by the Gainesville sideline as the reality of playing for the program’s first state title since 2012 sunk in.
“I just knew I had to chase him down and make a play. We don’t care who does what. We just want to win,” Sims said. “This means everything to me, everything. The last couple of years were hard, so to be able to go to the state championship game as a senior just means everything.”
First-year coach Josh Niblett has given praise before every interview this season. He said there has been a special bond with this group as they have turned the program around after missing out on the playoffs last year to snap a 21-year streak.
“God has had his hand on these kids all year long. He has given them the energy and the effort, the thought process, the heart, the will, the physicalness, and the speed to play the game. It’s been special, and this is a special group,” Niblett said. "That was a huge play (by Quez). It put them back some more. The guys just never quit. I'm so proud of these kids right now."
The Red Elephants (14-0) will have the supremest test of them all next week. They will head to Georgia State Stadium on Friday at 7 p.m. to take on No. 1-ranked and 2021 state runner-up Hughes in the 6A championship game. Hughes hammered Rome, 42-3, in the other 6A semifinal on Friday.
Wright, who was a near-flawless 15-of-16 passing for 203 yards and three touchdowns, said they aren’t done yet.
“This is what we’ve talked about since we were seven, so this means so much for us,” Wright said. “We’re excited. We’re pumped. The job’s not done yet.”
In the last two rounds of the playoffs, Gainesville has jumped on its opponents quickly.
The Hornets used the Red Elephants playbook against them, taking the opening drive 65 yards in just six plays, capped by a 24-yard TD pass from Smith to Ethan Crite for a 7-0 lead just over two minutes into the game.
But Gainesville’s Darius Cannon answered right back, taking the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for a score to tie the game 11 seconds later. That was the spark that ignited their 28-point explosion.
“It was huge because everyone was nervous at first, and they scored fast,” Cannon said. “There was a big gap, and I just followed my guys. I knew they wouldn’t catch me.”
From there, the Gainesville defense took control. They forced a punt, held the Hornets on downs, and forced another punt while the offense went to work as well.
Gainesville had just three possessions and scored on all three, getting three TD passes from Wright -- a 6-yard leaping catch by Sky Niblett to give them the lead, a 23-yard strike to Cannon, and a 22-yard pass to Tre Reece, who tight-roped down the sideline after breaking out of traffic for a 28-7 advantage.
Roswell pulled within 28-14 at halftime when Smith and Chris Elko connected on a 26-yard touchdown pass with 56 seconds left. The Red Elephants kept the drive alive twice with a pair of untimely penalties for their only real mistakes of the first half.
The Gainesville front-7 once again set the tone holding Roswell running back Nykahi Davenport, who came in averaging over 150 yards/game, to just 28 yards in the first half.
In the second half, the Hornets defense stiffened, stopping Gainesville on its opening possession despite a nearly five-minute drive. Smith and Ethan Crite wasted little time, striking for a 73-yard touchdown pass to pull within 28-21.
Gainesville responded with a 30-yard TD pass from Wright to Travien Watson, extending the lead to 35-21 two minutes later. Roswell answered back again as Davenport scored on a 3-yard run to trim the lead to one score, 35-28, with 10:42 left.
The Red Elephants' defense then stood tall, stopping the Hornets at the Gainesville 20 on their next drive and then the final drive in the waning seconds.
“Our guys just kept playing,” Niblett said. “This is what it’s all about. Look, we’re going to the state championship game. This is the way games are supposed to be.”
NOTES: Cannon finished with 5 catches for 65 yards and 1 TD and added 96 more on the kickoff return. ... Watson had 4 catches for 57 yards and 1 TD, all in the second half. ... Cheeks finished with 126 yards but was held in check for just 58 yards on 14 carries after his opening run. ... Davenport was held to just 55 yards on 14 carries, his lowest output of the season. The Hornets managed just 90 yards on 26 carries for the game. ... Gainesville suffered its first turnover of the playoffs on a fumble in the second half.
Roswell................7.....7.....7....7 -- 28
Gainesville........14...14.....7.....0 -- 35
R -- Crite 24 pass from Smith (Gonda kick) 7-0, 9:47
G -- Cannon 96 kickoff return (White kick) 7-7, 7:36
G -- Niblett 6 pass from Wright (White kick) 14-7, 6:14
G -- Cannon 23 pass from Wright (White kick) 21-7, 9:52
G -- Reece 22 pass from Wright (White kick) 28-7, 3:49
R -- Elko 26 pass from Smith (Gonda kick) 28-14, 0:56
R -- Crite 73 pass from Smith (Gonda kick) 28-21, 4:52
G -- Watson 30 pass from Wright (White kick) 35-21, 2:05
R -- Davenport 3 run (Gonda kick) 35-28, 10:42