Posted: Friday, September 6th 2013 at 7:12pm
Who's better? State champions to battle for bragging rights tonight (Video)
By Morgan Lee Editor
Gainesville's Deshaun Watson, left, and Buford's Isaac Nauta will each play key roles on Friday in the two teams' showdown at City Park.
GAINESVILLE -- There are no postseason implications and no longstanding rivalry at stake.
Yet tonight’s game between Gainesville and Buford at City Park might be the biggest regular season game in recent memory in northeast Georgia.
That’s what happens when you bring together two defending state champs, two No. 1s and two programs with as much star power and clout as the Red Elephants and Wolves currently boast.
In short -- and both sets of players and coaches freely admit this -- tonight’s game is a bit special. (NOTE: To watch a video preview of the game, featuring interviews and highlights from both teams, click "play" in the box to the righthand side.)
“We’re all excited on the coaching staff, and I think the kids feed off that,” Buford coach Jess Simpson said. “The community is excited too. We’re all looking forward to the challenge on Friday.”
Gainesville coach Bruce Miller could not agree more.
“It’s always exciting early in the season to be involved in a game of this magnitude.,” Miller said. “There will be a playoff atmosphere. It should be a lot of fun and a chance to see how meet such a big challenge.”
The game will feature an intriguing match-up of diverging philosophies, and while it would be lazy to label it simply speed versus power, it is certain that Gainesville will want to make use of its pace, while Buford will want to play smashmouth -- keeping the Red Elephants’ spread attack and record-breaking quarterback Deshaun Watson on the sidelines as much as possible.
Add to that the fact that Gainesville dealt the Wolves their first home defeat since a 2006 playoff loss last season and you have the ingredients for an explosive showdown that will have the attention of football fans around the state.
“We’ve been getting a lot of hype for the game,” Buford senior running back/linebacker Ryan Coleman said. “And I’d say we’re probably the underdogs going in, so we take that as a challenge. ... Usually we are playing from on top, per se, so, definitely we’re looking forward to it. We love playing good opponents.”
Watson -- who threw four interceptions last season but also burned the Wolves for three touchdowns and almost 300 yards of offense in last year’s 19-15 win in Buford -- is also looking forward to taking on a stacked opposing defense, one that allowed just 216 yards (27 through the air) last week in a 46-7 defeat of Elbert County.
“It’s great to play a team like this, against the best competition in state, great athletes, great coaches... It’s going to be one heck of a game,” said Watson, who is roughly 250 yards short of becoming the state’s first 10,000 yard passer for a career.
Watson and his offense certainly found their rhythm last week, rolling up 661 yards in a 58-28 defeat of West Forsyth on the road. The dual threat quarterback accounted for 383 yards of that passing, as well as 70 rushing and five total touchdowns. Jay Gaudlock, mainly a running back until this season, excelled in his first start at receiver, catching 10 passes for 183 yards and a score, while eight other players caught passes -- including six different receivers hauling in touchdowns. Michael Byrd also featured at running back, carrying 18 times for 78 yards and two TDs -- he also caught four passes, including a touchdown.
Yet the Wolves have confidence in a defense that returns a number of the playmakers that featured on last year’s unit that yielded just 7.2 points per game -- including an imposing defensive front seven that features future Watson teammate Korie Rogers (both are committed to play for Clemson).
“Buford hasn’t changed over the years. We play hard-nosed football. We’ve just got to get our fundamentals straight,” Wolves senior receiver/defensive back Will Rollins said. “That’s what we do best.”
Those fundamentals will include keeping an eye, or maybe even two, on Watson.
“The first thing is you want to effect the quarterback as a defense -- try to make him move off the spot, thrown on the run; you can spy him with someone underneath. If you can do that, you've accomplished something.” Simpson said. “You also want to make them change up and think about their protections and how they protect. As a runner, you want to make him stop his feet and move east-west. It’s tough because on third and fourth down (Watson) usually falls forward, and that’s big for an offense. It’s a huge challenge for our defense.”
Meanwhile, Gainesville’s defense will look to stymie a Buford offense that, while it may not feature a player as heralded as Watson, has plenty of firepower of its own -- as last Friday’s win showed with six different players recording touchdowns. The Wolves backfield features plenty of depth, including Joshua Thomas, Zavior Hoxie and Thomas Wilson, who all rotated carries in last week’s win -- along with explosive newcomer Evyn Cooper, who ripped off a 52-yard scoring run. Tight end Isaac Nauta is also an up and coming star. And, of course, there’s Buford’s bread and butter: a strong offensive line.
“I was pleasantly surprised with how the offensive line executed (last week),” Simpson said. “We’ve got room for improvement still, but the biggest difference is the experience we have from a year ago, guys that have been in game games. That’s a big deal. The strength for us is diversity, we have plenty of running backs, tight ends, receivers and two quarterbacks we trust and can make plays (Taylor Mitchell and Montgomery VanGorder). We’re going to play kids both ways and Gainesville doesn’t, so we have to twos and threes ready to rotate and help us.”
The Red Elephants’ defense, which is putting several new faces in starting positions this season, had some growing pains early in last week’s win, allowing three touchdowns in the first 13 minutes before clamping down and yielding just one more score the rest of the way.
“I asked them what happened (last Friday) this weekend, and they said, ‘coach, we were tentative, not scared. It was just the first game of the season, an we were a little laid back.’ Six of those guys had never started before. But once they got it worked out and got after it, things worked out.”
And now a unit led by linebackers Devan Stringer, J.D. Sosebee and safety Chandler Newton will look to disrupt Buford’s grinding attack.
“We’ve got to win line of scrimmage, and our skill players have to show up and make plays,” Miller said. “Last year we won it at the end. And we’re going to have to play 48 minutes down to end if we want to win again.”
It’s a mindset the Wolves will also bring to City Park.
“Really, it’s about just a challenge, playing the defending AAAAA champ,” Simpson said. “If you’re doing this for right reasons, you love a challenge. So we feel like let’s see how we measure up.”
And certainly the rest of the state will be peeking in to see just how those measurements finish.
BUFORD at GAINESVILLE
-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m.
-- WHERE: City Park, Gainesville
-- RADIO: 1240 AM
-- BUFORD (1-0, 0-0 Region 7-AAA): Defeated Elbert County 46-7 last week. The Wolves are ranked No. 1 in Class AAA.
-- GAINESVILLE (1-0, 0-0 Region 8-AAAAA): Defeated West Forsyth 58-28 last week. The Red Elephants are ranked No. 1 in Class AAAAA.
-- HISTORY: Gainesville won the last meeting 19-15 in 2012. Buford leads the series 4-1.
Link: For a look at all of the area's teams in week 2, click here
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