It won’t be a case of win or go home tonight, but in some ways West Forsyth is picking up where it left off last season.
The Wolverines are set for their first game since losing to eventual state champion Grayson in the Class AAAAA quarterfinals last November, and right off the bat they are again facing one of the premier teams in the state. West travels to Gainesville later today to take on the Red Elephants, the No. 8-ranked team in Class AAAAA, in one of the state’s marquee matchups of opening week.
The contest kicks off a brutal four-game opening stretch for the Wolverines in which they face three teams ranked in the top 10 in the state and another that reached the state title game two years ago.
"We really tried to focus on the basics this week," West coach Frank Hepler said.
"When you’re playing an athletically talented team like Gainesville, you better be fundamentally sound."
Though they haven’t seen each other in almost three years, the Wolverines and Red Elephants are hardly strangers. West and Gainesville faced off during the 2008 and 2009 seasons — the Wolverines’ first two varsity campaigns.
The Red Elephants overwhelmed West in each of those two meetings (35-16, 34-0) behind athletic quarterback Blake Sims, who led them to the Class AAA state title game in 2009.
Sims is now a member of national champion Alabama’s roster, but the Red Elephants have replaced him with an even more dangerous threat.
Gainesville junior quarterback Deshaun Watson, a three-year starter who has already committed to Clemson, piled up more than 4,400 yards of offense last year and accounted for a whopping 57 touchdowns. Watson was a threat both through the air and on the ground, passing for 3,251 yards and 41 touchdowns while adding another 1,073 yards and 16 scores via the run.
Behind Watson, the Red Elephants reeled off 12 consecutive victories before falling to Burke County in the Class AAA state semifinals. For the season, Gainesville outscored opponents by an average of 40-17.
"We have to do a good job trying to contain the weapons [Watson] has on offense," Hepler said. "When I say contain them, it’s just being aware of where they’re lined up and who he likes to go to. Then, hopefully that will disrupt he wants to do. We’re going to try to force him into doing some things that maybe he doesn’t want to do."
Defense is the biggest unknown for the Wolverines this season.
The team lost several key contributors from last year’s squad, including safety Trevor Guthrie, the 2011 All-County Defensive Player of the Year and the team’s all-time interceptions leader.
West will look to senior outside linebacker Mohamed Camara to fill much of that leadership void. Camara, who has verbally committed to South Carolina, is coming off a season in which he recorded more than 100 tackles.
The Wolverines are much more experienced on offense, with senior quarterback A.J. Erdely, senior wingback Jake Wieczorek and senior tight end Ty Anderson leading the way at the skill positions.
Hepler said West must remained balanced on offense to succeed against Gainesville.
"[Gainesville is] solid up front and it looks like their secondary runs well," Hepler said.
"We’re going to have to get into a little bit of a rhythm running and passing; we can’t rely on just one or the other. The biggest thing is our offense has to get in a rhythm against a team like that. We’ve got to get them off balance and keep them frustrated and not let them zero in on A.J. [Erdely] or Jake [Wieczorek]."
Playing conditions could become a factor, as the weather forecast calls for a 30 percent chance of rain. Hepler said the Wolverines are prepared to adjust their offensive attack depending on the weather and field conditions.
The game will be filmed by WSB-TV and aired at 1 a.m. Friday morning.