GAINESVILLE — West Forsyth coach Frank Hepler said he wanted to force Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson to do things "he doesn’t want to do."
By the time Watson tossed his fourth interception Thursday night, it was clear the Wolverines had accomplished that goal.
West scored 25 unanswered points in the second quarter with the help of two of Watson’s four turnovers, then held off a late rally by the No. 8-ranked Red Elephants to win 32-30 in the season opener for both teams at City Park Stadium.
The victory was the Wolverines’ first-ever against a Gainesville program that defeated them 35-16 in 2008 and 34-0 in 2009 — West’s first two seasons as a varsity program.
"Getting the lead at halftime was big and it gave us the confidence that we can play with these guys," West coach Frank Hepler said.
"Forsyth County teams have kind of taken a back seat to the Hall County teams over the years. We told our guys, ‘We’re not the old Forsyth County,’ and I think that’s true because the whole county is better."
Watson, a Clemson recruit, tallied more than 4,400 yards of offense and 57 touchdowns last season while leading Gainesville to 12 consecutive wins and an appearance in the Class AAA state semifinals.
On Thursday night he finished 29 of 45 for 304 yards passing and two touchdowns and ran for 60 yards and two more scores, but his four interceptions proved too much to overcome for the Red Elephants, who will play in Class AAAAA this year.
"We actually kind of laid back at times, dropped an eight-man coverage and tried to force him to find the open guy," Hepler said. "We saw that when you pressure him, he’s great at avoiding your pressure and then you’ve only got six guys back there. We actually told our defensive line, ‘Just play down the line of scrimmage ... let him sit back there ... and now it’s eight against their five.’"
West (1-0), set to compete in the new Class AAAAAA this year, made its fair share of mistakes as well and ultimately needed big performances from several players to compensate for them.
Wolverines linebacker Josh Salo intercepted two passes, including one that allowed West's offense to run the clock down inside 15 seconds, and tight end Ty Anderson recovered two loose balls — a fumble for a two point conversion and a Gainesville onside kick with 6.6 seconds remaining.
On offense, West was led by quarterback A.J. Erdely (7 of 9, 110 yards passing, 1 passing TD, 67 yards rushing, 1 rushing TD), wingback Jake Wieczorek (98 yards rushing, 1 TD) and running back Trever O’Brien (77 yards rushing, 1 TD).
West seized control of the game less than a minute into the second quarter, after Gainesville (0-1) pulled ahead 15-7 on a two-yard touchdown run by Watson and a successful two-point conversion.
Wieczorek fielded the ensuing kickoff near West’s 10-yard line and took it all the way down the Gainesville 17.
Gainesville bottled up Erdely on three consecutive plays and forced West to settle for a 32-yard field goal by Timmy Hartshorn, but those three points ultimately ended up being the difference in the game.
The Wolverines forced Gainesville into a three-and-out on the next series and got the ball back at their own 42.
On the fourth play of the drive, Erdely scrambled down the right sideline for a 26-yard gain to the 15. Four plays later, Erdely was corralled at the 1 by Gainesville defenders on another scramble, but his second effort allowed him to extend the ball across the goal line and give West its first lead with 5:39 left in the half.
West pulled ahead 18-15 when Mohamed Camara fumbled the ball into the end zone on a two-point conversion attempt, where it was recovered by Anderson.
"Ty is one of those kids you love to have," Hepler said. "If you have a bunch of those guys on your team you’d be undefeated every year."
Six plays into Gainesville’s next drive, Watson tried for a quick scoring strike from the Red Elephants’ 45, but his deep pass was intercepted by Drew Wesolowski about five yards from the end zone and returned 62 yards to the Gainesville 33.
A penalty for a late hit set up the Wolverines just 18 yards from the end zone, and Wieczorek did the rest with an 18-yard touchdown run to the right on the first play of the drive. Hartshorn’s extra point gave West a 25-15 lead at the 3:49 mark.
Salo picked up his first interception at the West 41 on Gainesville’s ensuing series, snatching the ball out of the air after it popped out of a receiver’s hands.
Erdely then kept West’s drive going with a 22-yard pass over the middle to Wieczorek on third-and-10 from the 37. Sophomore Trever O’Brien took a handoff 14 yards to the end zone on the next play, giving West a 32-15 lead going into the half after Hartshorn’s extra point.
"Everything was clicking," Erdely said. "The offensive line did a great job all night."
The Wolverines’ offense was held in check the rest of the way, while the defense spent much of the second half in a bend-but-don’t-break mode.
Watson marched the Red Elephants inside the West 35-yard line twice during the third quarter but came away without any points after a turnover on downs and an interception by Josh Gordon.
Gainesville advanced all the way to the West 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter, but a false start penalty on third and 1 pushed the ball back to six, and Watson’s pass fell incomplete on fourth and goal.
"We just kept changing it up, giving them [different] blitzes or giving them different looks in the secondary," said Camara, a senior outside linebacker committed to South Carolina. "We have a lot of athletes on our defensive side and we were ready to go tonight. [Gainesville has] a lot of weapons and they run the no-huddle, so that was really tough, but we were prepared."
Watson finally got Gainesville back in the end zone on a run with 5:26 remaining, cutting West’s lead to 32-23 following a successful two-point conversion.
Salo intercepted Watson again with under three minutes remaining, and the game appeared over after West ran the clock down to 23.5 and set up to punt.
But the kick went almost straight up in the air, and Gainesville got ball back at the West 32 with 14.3 seconds left.
A blown coverage on Gainesville’s first play allowed Watson to hit a wide-open Lahius Leverette down the left sideline for a touchdown with 7.7 seconds left.
Gainesville attempted an onside kick that deflected off the hands of a West player, but Anderson recovered the ball a split-second before a group of Gainesville players could get to it. One kneel-down by Erdely completed the win.
"That was the longest six minutes," Erdely said of the final stretch of the game.
"I wish we would have finished better, but that’s a good team. I know it was a huge game for our coaches, they really wanted it."
For the game, Gainesville gained 429 total yards to West Forsyth’s 353.
Each team scored on its first offensive drive, as Erdely countered a five-yard touchdown pass by Watson with an 11-play, 64-yard drive that ended with a 19-yard touchdown pass to Brian Porter, tying the game 7-7.
The Wolverines will face another strong Hall County program next Friday when No. 10 Flowery Branch (Class AAAAA) comes to the West campus.