Gainesville 35, Roswell 28

Credit: Jamie Spaar/For the AJC

Credit: Jamie Spaar/For the AJC

Gainesville kept Roswell out of the end zone on four consecutive plays from inside the 10-yard line in the final two minutes to preserve a 35-28 victory in the Class 6A semifinals Friday night in a game played at McEachern High School in Cobb County.

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Gainesville quarterback Baxter Wright completed his first 15 passes and finished with 208 yards and four touchdowns, and Darius Cannon scored on a 94-yard kickoff return and a 23-yard reception to help the Red Elephants (14-0) reach the finals for the first time since 2012, when Deshaun Watson led the program to its first state championship.

It will be the first trip to a Georgia state final for first-year Gainesville coach Josh Niblett, a seven-time Alabama champion best known for his six titles at Hoover.

The Red Elephants will meet top-ranked Hughes (14-0), the 2021 state runner-up, in the championship game next Friday at 7 p.m. at Georgia State’s Center Parc Stadium. Hughes advanced to the final with a 42-3 victory over No. 6 Rome Friday.

“We’re going to enjoy this one, and then we’re going to put all our chips on the table,” Niblett said. “We’re 14-0, they’re 14-0. It’s a great opportunity for us. This is all about us. We’ve got to lock in on what we’re doing. We’ll put a game plan together, our kids will play their tails off, and then we’ll see what happens at the end. We’ve got just as much of an opportunity to win this thing as they do.”

Roswell had the ball first-and-goal at the Gainsville 3-yard line with about two minutes left after a 20-yard run by quarterback K.J. Smith. A 2-yard run by Nykahi Johnson on first down moved the ball just inside the 1, but Smith was sacked for a 9-yard loss on the next play. Smith was incomplete on his next two passes, turning the ball over on downs, and Gainesville took a knee to end the game.

Third-ranked Roswell (12-2) had the ball in the red zone twice in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie but came away with no points on either drive. After cutting Gainesville’s lead to 35-28 on a 3-yard run by Davenport with 10:42 remaining in the game, the Hornets recovered a fumble on the fourth play of Gainesville’s next drive and eventually reached the 14 before a penalty moved them back to the 32. A pass on fourth-and-16 from the 20 fell incomplete.

Roswell scored on the first possession of the game on a 24-yard pass from Smith to Ethan Crite with 9:47 left in the first quarter. The lead lasted just 11 seconds, though, as Darius Cannon returned the ensuing kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown, igniting a 28-point run that put Gainesville in control. Wright threw touchdowns passes of 6 yards to Sky Niblett, 23 yards to Cannon and 22 yards to Tre Reece before Roswell scored just before halftime to make it a 28-14 game. Naim Cheeks set up the go-ahead touchdown with a 68-yard run that got the ball to the Roswell 19. Cheeks finished with 128 yards rushing on 14 carries, and Cannon had 78 yards receiving on five catches.

Crite scored on a 73-yard pass midway through the third quarter to cut the gap to 28-21, but Gainesville answered with a 30-yard touchdown pass from Wright to Travien Watston to restore the lead to 14 points.

Crite finished with 150 yards on four receptions. Smith was 18-of-31 passing for 269 yards, and Davenport had 66 yards rushing on 16 carries.

It was the second consecutive week in which Roswell found itself in a deep hole. Against Houston County last week, the Hornets faced deficits of 24-6 and 31-13 before rallying for a 42-34 victory. Roswell trailed 28-7 and 35-21 against Gainesville, and although the Hornets got back within seven points both times, they were never able to pull even.

“They’re kinda like us, they score in spurts,” Niblett said. “I thought it was really big for our guys to just keep playing. You can get that in the back of your minds, and it can cause issues, and if our guys had had that, they wouldn’t have kept playing. It’s what it’s all about, man. We’re going to the state championship, and this was a semifinal game, and this is the way these games are supposed to be.”

The game was played at the neutral site because designated home team Roswell’s stadium did not meet the GHSA minimum seating requirement for hosting a 6A semifinal.

Gainesville - 14-14-7-0 - 35

Roswell - 7-7-7-7 - 28

First quarter

R - Ethan Crite 24 pass from K.J. Smith (Brett Gonda kick), 9:47

G - Darius Cannon 94 kickoff return (John White kick), 9:36

G - Sky Niblett 6 pass from Baxter Wright (White kick), 6:14

Second quarter

G - Cannon 23 pass from Wright (White kick), 9:52

G - Tre Reece 22 pass from Wright (White kick), 3:49

R - Chris Elko 26 pass from Smith (Gonda kick), 0:56

Third quarter

R - Crite 73 pass from Smith (Gonda kick), 4:52

G - Travien Watson 30 pass from Wright (White kick), 2:05

Fourth quarter

R - Nykahi Davenport 3 run (Gonda kick), 10:42