By Sarah Woodall
The Gainesville High football team was on its way to its first win of the season Friday night in Gainesville -- or so it thought.
Visiting North Forsyth instead stole it away in what turned out to be a thriller at Bobby Gruhn Field.
Raiders starting quarterback Carter Mullikin threw for the go-ahead, 20-yard touchdown with 20.2 seconds left, and the senior added an acrobatic 2-point conversion plunge as he was spun on contact and outstretched his arm across the plain to grant North Forsyth a thrilling 24-21 victory over the host Red Elephants.
The senior signal caller and first-year starter for the Raiders (1-0) orchestrated the four-play, game-winning charge inside 1:11 left in regulation, first completing passes of nine and 13 yards to wideouts Nicky Dalmolin and Charlie Aiken, respectively.
A critical defensive pass interference call on Gainesville on the 1-yard-line scooted the Raiders (1-1) up to Big Red’s 36-yard-line, and on the next snap Mullikin threw over the middle to Aiken, who made the sliding grab over a defender in the end zone to give North Forsyth its first and only lead of the contest. Aiken, who came up limping after the play, quickly flung the ball up in the air as his teammates rushed the end zone and the visiting crowd erupted with cheers.
Mullikin also put the Raiders on the board in the opening period with a 1-yard quarterback keeper through the gut.
“I am so proud of the guys,” North Forsyth head coach Robert Craft said. “Last week’s game was exactly the same, went right down (the field) with the ball, but didn’t make the play at the end of the game. ...We just kept staying in there, and staying in there.”
Although it held a 14-13 halftime lead and getting a huge interception from defensive back Rassie Littlejohn at the start of the second half, inexperience reared its ugly head for Gainesville, which gave up one too many critical penalties.
Meanwhile, the veteran poise of the Raiders manifested in the final two periods. Raiders kicker Thor Billstrom --who made three 30-plus yard field goals -- booted a 36-yarder to cut it to 21-16 with 8:52 to go, and the defense held Gainesville to a pair of 3-and-outs to keep things within reach.
“They are hurting, obviously tremendous competitors and wanted that one badly,” Webb said. But I hurt for them. I thought they played their guts out. Great ballgame, both sides of the ball.”
Raiders tailback/safety Honus Wagner also shined from the backfield, as he rushed for 217 yards on 22 carries. Wideout Nicky Dalmolin hauled in five balls for 79 yards. It was a promising result for North Forsyth, which lost star running back Bryson Trigg with a broken collarbone in last week’s game.
Gainesville nearly couldn’t get out of its own way with costly penalties from the early going. Big Red was flagged six times for 65 yards, including a hold on their opening drive that slowed a charge that spanned 12 plays but resulted in a punt.
The Red Elephants still showed plenty of balance on the offense through starting quarterback Walt Dixon, who began by completing his first six pass attempts and put Big Red in contention for their first score on the second drive from scrimmage with a 32-yard connection with Justice Johnson. Starting running back Quintavious Hayes put Gainesville on the board with the first of two explosive runs of the half, rumbling and shaking off would-be tacklers for a 39-yard touchdown for 7-0 at the 3:39 mark of the opening quarter.
North Forsyth matched Gainesville at 7-all on its second drive of the game, all made possible by quarterback Mullikin and his favored target Dalmolin. Dalmolin caught a short pass over the middle on a quick slant, then scampered an additional 20-plus yards down field to put the Raiders within striking distance. Mullikin rolled into the end zone on a 1-yard keeper three plays later to cap the six-play drive at the 1:32 mark of the opening quarter.
The pair nearly gave North Forsyth the lead midway through the second quarter. Mullikin rolled out and connected to Dalmolin a second time in space, and Dalmolin appeared to shed off his tackler and scored from 48 yards, but a hold erased the potential go-ahead touchdown.
Gainesville’s defense was otherwise resilient, as it held North Forsyth out of the endzone for the remainder of the half, despite the Raiders twice marching down inside the Red Elephants’ 15-yard-line in the second quarter. The Raiders had to settle for two field goals.