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Sunday February 5th, 2023 9:33PM

State Finals: Hughes holds off Red Elephants in 6A title game

By Jeff Hart | Video by Seth Chapman
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ATLANTA — Even as the clock ticked down on Gainesville’s season -- and attempt to win its first state title in a decade -- it was hard to find much to critique Friday night at Center Parc Stadium.

The Red Elephants pushed No. 1 Langston Hughes down to the final minute before succumbing to the Panthers, 35-28, in a thrilling Class 6A championship game.

Gainesville’s 28 points was the most by any team this season against the Panthers’ No. 1 defense. The 35 points was the lowest output for a No. 1-ranked Panthers’  offense that came in averaging 56 points/game in the playoffs.

“All of that is great but we just want to win,” first-year Gainesville coach Josh Niblett said. “I’m not that much into moral victories. But our guys came in here and fought their tails off. We wanted to leave with a state championship but it is what it is and we’ll learn from this.”

If not for a crushing 72-yard kickoff return by Hughes’ Jekail Middlebrook in the waning seconds of the third quarter, who knows what might have been.

After a 59 second blitz to end the first half, Hughes pushed a slim 9-6 lead to 23-6 going into the break. From there, Gainesville chipped away in the second half pulling within 29-21 on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Baxter Wright to Travien Watson with 24 seconds left in the third quarter.

But Middlebrook snaked through the Gainesville return unit and then found a seam for what would be the eventual game-winner and a 35-21 lead at the time.

The Red Elephants again got within one score on a 10-yard TD pass from Wright to Watson with 3:59 left. But Hughes was able to convert on three separate third downs to run out the clock.

“It wasn’t just one play. We had a bad three minutes at the end of the first half,” Niblett said. “But the guys bowed their backs up after halftime to make it a one-score game. That’s what we wanted it to be in the fourth quarter.”

Hughes coach Daniel Williams said they expected a dogfight.

“I knew Coach Niblett was going to have them ready to play,” Williams said. “We just had to keep responding. Just had to keep making plays and keep making plays. That was the thing -- resiliency in the end.”

In that pivotal final minute of the second quarter, the Panthers were able to snatch the momentum from a confident Gainesville group.

For 23 minutes the Red Elephants had gone toe-to-toe with the heavily-favored Panthers. The defense forced a Hughes punt on their first possession and surrendered just a Josua Solano 28-yard field goal in the first quarter.

The Gainesville offense found some traction on its second possession to answer back, getting a 20-yard field goal from Eric Guerra to tie the game just a minute into the second quarter.

Hughes would answer that with a 20-yard touchdown pass from Air Noland to Ohio State tight end commit Jelani Thurman for a 9-3 lead. A blocked extra point at the time seemed big for both teams.

The Red Elephants offense looked poised to give them their first lead of the game, driving to the Panthers 3 after converting on two third downs and a fourth down run by Wright.

However, the Hughes defense stiffened, forcing a 29-yard field goal from Guerra with 59 seconds left in the half. With Gainesville set to get the ball first in the third quarter, the momentum was swinging their way.

But the Panthers showed why they have been favored all season to claim their first title. Noland needed just three plays on passes of 24 and 25-yards to Jaden Barnes and then a 15-yard scoring strike to Middlebrook for a 71-yard drive in 34 seconds and a 15-6 lead after another botched PAT.

Then disaster struck for the Red Elephants as the Panthers forced a Darius Cannon fumble on the ensuing kickoff and Noland found Barnes for an 18-yard TD pass on the next play for a 23-6 lead after a 2-point pass with just 11 seconds left in the half.

“Those 14 points were major,” Williams said. “That was the swing we knew we needed. Every game, we’ve always had a swing. The kids responded there. I mean, look, take away those 14 points and we lose.”

In the second half, the Red Elephants stormed out getting a 2-yard touchdown run from Wright to cap a 60-yard opening drive to close the gap to 23-13. Hughes answered that with a 74-yard drive and a 1-yard Noland TD run and a 29-13 lead.

That would be the Panthers’ final offensive points as the Gainesville defense held their offense scoreless over the final 16 minutes.

Niblett said they are hoping to carry the progress made in Year 1 down the road and gives credit to a senior class that had craved success after three mediocre seasons.

“We wanted these seniors to leave with a ring but unfortunately that didn’t happen,” he said. “What they’ve done and the commitment they made to the program I hope is going to make an impact on the rest of their lives. They did a really good job of leading the younger kids this year and hopefully they learned from that.”

NOTES: Gainesville (14-1) came into the matchup looking for its first title since beating Ware County 49-13 to win the 2012 Class 3A crown at the old Georgia Dome. Hughes (15-0) was looking for redemption after losing to Buford in last year’s title game. ... Wright, a junior, finished the game 22-of-34 with 2 TDs passing  and added another 65 yards rushing for Gainesville. ... GHS Senior running back Naim Cheeks was held to a playoff-low 55 yards but he had a tremendous postseason rushing for more than 700 yards in the 2022 playoffs. ... Watson, a junior, had a team-high 10 catches for 102 yards and the two scores. Cannon had 9 catches for 48 yards for the Red Elephants. ... Gainesville’s Jeremiah Telander, a Tennessee-commit, was a beast on the defensive end finishing with a game-high 13 tackles, including 4 tackles for loss and 3 sacks in his final high school game. He helped hold the Panthers to a season-low 73 yards rushing. ... However, Noland, a junior who came in with over 3,800 yards and 52 TD passes on the season, added to both. He was 18-of-21 for 263 yards and 3 TDs.


SCORING SUMMARY
Hughes..................3.....20.. ...12.....0 -- 35
Gainesville............0......6....  .15.....7 -- 28

First Quarter
H -- Solano 28 FG 3-0, 3:35

Second Quarter
G -- Guerra 20 FG 3-3, 11:05
H -- Thurman 20 pass from Noland (PAT blocked) 9-3, 7:49
G -- Guerra 29 FG 9-6, 0:59
H -- Middlebrook 15 pass from Noland (kick failed) 15-6, :25
H -- Jaden Barnes 18 pass from Noland (Thurman pass) 23-6, 0:11

Third Quarter
G -- Wright 3 run (Guerra kick) 23-13, 7:54
H -- Noland 1 run (pass failed) 29-13, 4:01
G -- Watson 6 pass from Wright (Wright run) 29-21, 0:24
H -- Middlebrook 71 kickoff return (pass failed) 35-21, :10

Fourth Quarter
G -- Watson 10 pass from Wright (Guerra kick) 35-28, 3:59

  • Associated Categories: Sports, High School Sports, Friday Game Night
  • Associated Tags: High school football, Gainesville football
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