Everyone expected Hughes, the 2021 Class 6A state runner-up, to advance to their second consecutive state championship game in 2022. The Panthers returned nearly their entire roster, including dynamic junior quarterback Prentiss Noland, a 24/7 Sports 4 Star recruit.
For Gainesville, however, few expected the Red Elephants to make a deep playoff run in 2022. They were just 5-5 in 2021 and failed to make the playoffs for the first time this century.
But after last week’s 35-28 win over Roswell in the semifinals, that’s precisely where Gainesville finds itself. The last time the Red Elephants had advanced past the first round had been 2015. The last time they made the quarterfinals was in 2014; the semifinals in 2013.
Now, the Red Elephants are into the finals for the first time since Deshaun Watson led them to the 2012 Class 3A state title, their only one in program history.
Gainesville is a huge underdog. But they were an underdog last week before dispatching the Hornets behind a huge game from quarterback Baxter Wright, who was 15-of-16 passing for 203 yards and 4 TDs.
Darius Cannon also delivered a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, their second straight game with a kickoff return for a score.
For a look at Gainesville's quest for a second state title, be sure to check back with AccessWDUN's Friday Game Night throughout the night on Friday for score updates, game stories, and video highlights. You can also check for scores and highlights on our Twitter feed: @FridayGameNight
CLASS 6A STATE FINALS
HUGHES vs. GAINESVILLE
Records: Panthers (14-0, No. 1 seed Region 5-6A); Red Elephants (14-0, No. 1 seed Region 8-6A)
Last week: Hughes beat Rome, 42-3; Gainesville beat Roswell, 35-28.
Where: Center Parc Stadium, Atlanta
Radio: WDUN AM 55/102.9 FM WDUN
Time: 7 p.m.
The Statisticals: First-ever meeting between the two programs. This is Gainesville’s first finals berth since 2012. The Panthers are in the finals for a second consecutive season. Hughes lost 21-20 to Buford in last year’s championship game. The two teams have two common opponents in 2022. Hughes beat South Paulding 68-14 during the regular season. Gainesville beat South Paulding 42-21 in the 2nd round of the playoffs. Gainesville beat North Forsyth 34-21 during the regular season. The Panthers routed the Raiders 77-16 in the 2nd round of the playoffs. Both offenses are explosive. Hughes leads the state in just about every category. The Panthers have scored a Georgia-best 757 points (54.07 ppg), including 224 points (56.0 ppg) in the playoffs. They are just 2 points of the all-time state record. Gainesville is third in Class 6A (557, 39.79 ppg) but has averaged 44.25 ppg in the playoffs. Defensively, the Panthers lead 6A allowing just 149 points (10.6 ppg), and have not allowed more than 28 in any game (Woodward Academy, quarterfinals). They held Rome, who was 6th in offense in 6A, to its lowest total over its past 22 games. It was the Wolves lowest playoff output since a 35-0 loss to East Paulding in 2010. The Hughes defense recorded 5 sacks and picked off three passes, including a pick-6.
What to watch for: The Gainesville defense vs. the No. 1 Hughes offense. Here we are again as the Red Elephants take on another stout offense. In each of the first four rounds, they held their opponent to less than half of their season average on the ground. But this time, they will have to try and stop Jr. QB Prentiss Noland, a 24/7 Sports 4 Star recruit, who is 2nd in the state in passing with 3,832 yards with 52 TD passes and just 4 INTs on the season. Noland has five different receivers with 36 or more catches combining for 46 TDs. They have scored a Georgia-best 757 points (54.07 ppg), including 224 points (56.0 ppg) in the playoffs. Gainesville is 17th in 6A in defense, allowing 15.43 ppg. The Red Elephants are led by Sr. LB and Tennessee-commit Jeremiah Telander, who 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.