Noland added a second-half touchdown run to put his team up 29-13 after the Red Elephants opened the half with a touchdown. He finished the game 18-of-21 passing for 263 yards and three touchdowns passing to go with the one rushing touchdown. For the season, Noland finished with over 4,000 passing yards, 55 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
“Air is a player, man,” Williams said. “He’s a pro. The team follows him. He was calm, so the team was calm, and we finished.”
Gainesville never disappeared, though. The Red Elephants opened the second half with a 12-play, 60-yard touchdown drive that cut the Hughes lead to 23-13. Quarterback Baxter Wright capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run. He connected with receiver Travien Watson for a 7-yard touchdown pass and rushed for a two-point conversion later in the quarter that cut the Hughes lead to eight, 29-21. After a kickoff return for a touchdown made it 35-21, Wright again led a scoring drive. He connected with Watson again for a 10-yard score to make it 35-28. Wright finished the game 22-of-34 for 191 yards and two touchdowns passing to go with a rushing touchdown.
“I knew coach (Josh) Niblett was going to have them ready to play,” Williams said. “We just had to keep responding.”
Despite falling just short of the ultimate prize, the Red Elephants will look back on the 2022 season as an enormous success. In their first season under Niblett, who spent 14 fruitful years as the head coach of Hoover (Ala.) prior to his arrival in Gainesville, the Red Elephants ended a string of six straight seasons in which they failed to make it out of the first round of the state playoffs. This year, they won their first 14 games, a region championship, and gave themselves a real shot at the hardware at the end of the year for the first time since 2012.
Langston Hughes -- 3 -- 20 -- 12 -- 0 -- 35
Gainesville -- 0 -- 6 -- 15 -- 7 -- 28
LH -- Josua Solano 28 field goal; 3:35
GHS -- Eric Guerra 20 field goal; 11:05
LH -- Jelani Thurman 20 pass from Air Noland (kick blocked); 7:49
GHS -- Guerra 28 field goal; :59
LH -- Jekail Middlebrook 15 pass from Noland (kick blocked); :25
LH -- Jaden Barnes 18 pass from Noland (Thurman pass from Noland); :11
GHS -- Baxter Wright 2 run (Guerra kick); 7:54
LH -- Noland 1 run (pass failed); 4:01
GHS -- Travien Watson 7 pass from Wright (Wright run); :24
LH -- Middlebrook 72 kickoff return (pass failed); :10
GHS -- Watson 10 pass from Wright (Guerra kick); 3:59