Don’t let the numbers fool you. When the game is on the line, the Gainesville defense has answered the bell every round. And delivered more than a few knockdowns.
For the season, the Red Elephants have given up 216 total points (15.43 points/game), which puts them just 17th overall in Class 6A after the semifinal round of the playoffs.
Of that number, 111 points came in the regular season (11.1 ppg). In the playoffs, it appears they have struggled, surrendering nearly that many (105 points, 26.25 ppg) in four postseason games.
But a deep dive shows a much better and more accurate picture. Through the first four rounds of the playoffs, they have had to tangle against two of the top four (No. 4 Houston County and No. 2 Roswell) and three of the top 10 offenses (No. 10 South Paulding) in Class 6A. As a collective group, those three scored 1,548 points (39.6 ppg). However, each walked off the field with season-ending losses after being held under their individual averages.
No other defense has faced the offensive gauntlet the Red Elephants have. Senior linebacker and emotional leader Jeremiah Telander leads the team with 99 total tackles, including 21 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. As a unit, they have 132 TFLs and 52 sacks on the season. They also have forced 20 turnovers.
He offered his theory about the defense, masterminded by defensive coordinator Steve Davis.
“Every day, we go against a great quarterback, a great running back, a bunch of great receivers, and a very good offensive line. We haven’t faced an offense as good as ours yet,” Telander said after a 49-35 win over Houston County in the quarterfinals. “That has made the entire defense so much better. We feel we can stop anyone.”
By the way, the Gainesville offense is third in Class 6A (557, 39.79 ppg) meaning the Red Elephants defenders are the only ones to have faced the top four offenses in the classification.
Their defensive grit was on full display against Roswell in a 35-28 win in the semifinals at McEachern Stadium. Despite the 28 points, three times the Hornets entered the red zone, only once did they walk away with points.
The Hornets came into the game averaging 41.6 ppg and nearly 460 yards/game, including 240 yards on the ground behind Nykahi Davenport, who came in averaging over 150 yards/game by himself. Gainesville held them to a playoff-low 326 total yards and just 90 yards rushing on 26 carries for the game. Davenport was held to just 55 yards on 14 carries, his lowest output of the season.
The final stop came in the final minute, fueled by a huge second-down 9-yard tackle for loss by Quez Sims. Over the final nine minutes, with the game on the line, the Hornets failed to score on their final two possessions, including 12 plays from inside the Red Elephants' 20.
First-year coach Josh Niblett was more than pleased with how his still-improving defense performed in its biggest challenge to date.
“Our guys just kept playing,” Niblett said. “They gave up some big plays at times, but our guys just bowed their backs (in that last series). We tell them to make teams snap it again and see if we can make something happen. They were able to do that.”
If Roswell represented their biggest challenge of the season, nothing will compare to what awaits them on Friday in the Class 6A championship game.
The Red Elephants (14-0) will take on No. 1 and 2021 state runner-up Langston Hughes (14-0) at 7 p.m. at Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta.
The Panthers have been practically unstoppable the entire 2022 campaign. They have scored a Georgia-best 757 points (54.07 ppg), including 224 points (56.0 ppg) in the playoffs. The next closest team in the state is Mill Creek, who made the finals in Class 7A, with 642 points (45.8 ppg).
Hughes dropped 77 on Region 8-6A runner-up North Forsyth in the second round. By comparison, Gainesville managed just 34 points against the Raiders after rallying from a 21-7 deficit.
The Panthers are led by junior quarterback Prentiss Noland, a 24/7 Sports 4 Star recruit, who is second in the state in passing with 3,832 yards with 52 TD passes and just 4 INTs on the season. Noland has five receivers with 36 or more catches who have combined for 46 TDs.
Senior Jaden Barnes has 1,029 yards with 14 TDs to lead the way. Seniors Jediyah Willoughby, Robert CJ Lockhart III, and sophomore Jovanni McGee are all speedy. But the toughest matchup for the Gainesville secondary may be 6-foot-6, 225-pound senior Jelani Thurman.
Hughes also has a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in senior Jekail Middlebrook (1,347 yards, 19 TD) and junior Justus Savage (1,002 yards, 12 TD). However, only one team -- Houston County -- has hit the 100-yard mark on the ground against the Red Elephants over the past eight weeks.
Sims, who set the stage for the Red Elephants' final goal line stand against Roswell, said it’s all about making plays.
“The coaches tell us to make plays, so we knew we had to make a big play,” Sims said after the win over Roswell. “Someone just needed to make a play. We play well together. We don’t care who makes plays.”
However, stats aside, intangibles can be just as important, if not more, Niblett said.
“It's a special group, and they love each other; they care for each other, and they believe in each other,” Niblett said. “They believe in what we're doing, and when you’ve got belief, you've got something special.”
(See a preview story on the Gainesville offense and their matchup with the Panthers' No. 1 defense.)
Class 6A state championship game
Who: No. 3-ranked Gainesville vs. No. 1-ranked Hughes, AKA Langston-Hughes
When: Friday, Dec. 9 at 7 p.m.
Where: Center Parc Stadium at Georgia State Stadium (Turner Field)
Radio Coverage: 6:35ish p.m. on AM 550/FM 102.9 WDUN (Judd Hickinbotham (PXP) and Dan Kiley (Color) on the call)