Devan Stringer provided Gainesville just the defensive lift it needed in its season opener Friday against West Forsyth in Cumming. Leading late in the second, the Red Elephants’ senior linebacker picked a Hunter McConnell pass in West territory.
Gainesville scored three plays later on senior quarterback Deshaun Watson’s third touchdown pass of the game – an 8-yard pass to junior Chris Williamson – and the top-ranked Red Elephants went on for a 58-28 victory.
"We started out and we played well early on and through the first half I thought our kids gave a great effort," West head coach Frank Hepler said. "Even the second half they gave a great effort. We just couldn’t keep up with the athleticism and the expertise that Gainesville had.
"Overall, I thought we found out a little bit more about our team. …I’m proud of our kids; they kept playing throughout and we’ll be better for it in the weeks to come."
After that pivotal interception, Gainesville kept the Wolverines off the score board the entire third quarter. Never the entire game did the Red Elephants offense struggle for too long.
"That interception certainly turned the momentum because it seemed like it was the team that had the ball last was going to win," Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. "It certainly turned the momentum in the game."
"I’m so proud of our team," Stringer said. "That turner swung the momentum, but it was all about the team effort."
Led by an outstanding night by receiver Jay Gaudlock (10 catches, 178 yards) and running by Michael Byrd (89 yards, three touchdowns), Gainesville’s offense looks to be in fine shape after graduating some big pieces from the 2012 state champions.
"This feels great to come out and win the first game," said Watson, who threw for 362 yards and had five touchdowns. "I’m very proud of how the entire team played."
Watson, the state’s all-time leading passer, had little trouble keeping the ball problem moving the ball down field in the opening half. However, the Wolverines’ talented junior quarterback Hampton McConnell kept West (0-1 Region 6-AAAAAA) in the ball game with some great passes and consistent run plays. McConnell finished the night with 106 rushing yards, 113 passing.
Miller said that West’s junior quarterback, and its entire hybrid spread offense for that matter, was as good as advertised.
"The thing is, you can run scout team all you want to try and prepare for an offense like they have, but it’s not the same as seeing it in a real game," Miller said.
McConnell put West up early with a scoring run from the 12 early in the first quarter, then hit Ryan Miller on a fourth-and-1 pass in the back of the end zone on a 23-yard touchdown strike to go up 14-3.
"We knew after they scored on their first they possessions that we were going to have to bow up and get a stop," said Stringer, an Appalachian State University pledge.
However, when Watson got settled and in a groove in the second quarter, he was impossible to rattle. A perfectly placed pass along the sideline to Orrin Ragland went for a 39-yard touchdown with just 2:52 left in the opening half and put the Red Elephants ahead for the first time at 24-21.
West led 14-3 after McConnell’s touchdown strike to Miller, but Watson responded for the Red Elephants with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Jay Gaudlock to keep them within a touchdown. Watson passed for 240 yards in the opening half and completed passes to seven Gainesville receivers.
Byrd added a 7-yard running score for Gainesville in the opening half, while he scored on a 3-yard scamper in the third quarter. He finished the game as the Red Elephants’ leading rusher with 89 yards.
In addition to his great night passing, Watson also ran it in on a run from the 1 in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, backup Red Elephants quarterback Mikey Gonzalez had a 59-yard touchdown pass to Josh Holderfield.
According to Watson, this marked the first time Gainesville won a season-opening game since his eighth grade year in 2009.
"Winning this game tonight is great for our confidence, but we have to work hard to be ready to face Buford next week," Watson said.
Gainesville plays host to Buford on Friday at City Park Stadium, while West visits Flowery Branch in South Hall.