Monroe senior running back Devine Noel more than did his part in the Tornadoes’ attempt to pull a second straight upset, rushing for 124 yards and a TD during Friday’s heartbreaking 16-13 loss to No. 6 state-ranked Gainesville. (Tom Reed/Gainesville Times)
GAINESVILLE -- The Tornadoes finally ran out of rocks to load in their slingshot.
Monroe went toe-to-toe with No. 6 state-ranked Gainesville on Friday night in another David-versus-Goliath matchup but came up three points short.
An 18-yard field goal from Gainesville's Aiden Reising with 4:07 left gave the Red Elephants a 16-13 victory and ended Monroe's improbable run in the GHSA Class AAA state playoffs.
"We came up just short," Monroe senior Devine Noel said. "But more than anything, I'm going to remember the way we came back from the bottom of the barrel (at the end of the season)."
One week after the Tornadoes (6-6) opened up the postseason with a miracle, last-second win against 10th-ranked Baldwin, they found themselves in another position to shock the state.
Down by three after that Reising field goal and with star quarterback Charles Stafford under center, the Tornadoes took the field with four minutes left and 80 yards between them and the end zone.
"I have never been in college, but I watch it a lot. And it felt like a college game," Stafford said of the final minutes.
As Stafford worked his way down the field, Monroe coach Charles Truitt silently paced the sideline, occasionally glancing up at the clock. Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said he was being reminded by his assistant coaches about Monroe's win last week when Stafford threw a 51-yard TD pass to Kevin Williams with 12 seconds left.
"Over the headset, they kept saying, 'You know they pulled off a miracle last week to win.' I said, 'Oh, crap,' " Miller said.
The Tornadoes, who were under .500 for most of the season and barely even got into the playoffs, had Miller worried and everyone at Bobby Gruhn Field on their feet as they crossed midfield with a little more a minute on the clock.
Monroe got all the way inside the Red Elephants' 30-yard line but turned the ball over on downs with just seconds left on the clock. Monroe's final play from scrimmage was a Stafford pass to the end zone that went through the hands of Devonntavis Campbell, who was in double coverage and nearly came away with a miraculous catch.
The Tornadoes, who made the 230-mile trip to Gainesville on Thursday, walked off the field 30 yards away from the biggest win in school history. That trip back to Albany certainly would feel a little longer than Thursday's bus ride.
"I won't go to sleep," Stafford said just before stepping on the bus. "I'll be thinking about this game and how we could have won. We could have executed much better than the way we did."
On defense, the Tornadoes were tough as nails.
They faced a Gainesville team that had won its past 10 games -- the majority of them in blowouts -- and was led by one of the top sophomore quarterbacks in the nation in Deshaun Watson.
The Red Elephants (11-1) entered the game averaging almost 45 points a game and Watson had thrown for more than 2,500 yards. But the Tornadoes, who pride themselves on defense, were never intimidated.
"We were coming out and going to play our ball. We weren't going to let their 40 points per game get to us," Noel said. "The game plan was to shift, hide our coverage and roll once they get under center and snap the ball."
The Red Elephants had scored at least 40 points in each of their past 10 games, but the Tornadoes held them nearly 30 points under their season average, while Watson was 14-for-31 for just 157 yards.
"The defense was able to contain him," Truitt said. "The secondary covered well. The defensive ends played a great game. It's no consolation to us losing, but I am glad with the way the defense played."
Miller said Monroe's defense was one of the toughest he had played against all season, second only to reigning state champ Buford, which shut out Gainesville in the season opener.
Gainesville got on the board first with 4:33 left in the first quarter when Tray Harrison broke free for a 43-yard run, but Monroe was able to answer with a 14-yard TD pass from Stafford to Williams with 6:52 left in the second quarter. Monroe's first score capped a 99-yard drive that was kept alive with several big runs by Noel, who finished with 124 rushing yards on 26 carries.
But then Gainesville quickly answered the Tornadoes with a 20-yard touchdown pass from Watson to Stephen Mason less than two minutes after Williams' TD catch.
The Red Elephants took a 13-6 lead into the locker room, but a Williams' interception in Gainesville territory midway through the third quarter put the Tornadoes right back in scoring position. The interception led to a Noel 2-yard TD run, which tied the game at 13-13.
Stafford finished the game 17-for-33 for 144 yards, and he completed passes to seven different receivers. His top targets were Williams (5 catches, 49 yards) and Xavier Street (5 catches, 37 yards).
Noel was one of eight seniors who ended their high school careers Friday night, but Truitt said his program's future is bright with several key starters returning next season, including Stafford, who is only a sophomore.
"This team is going to be a team to reckon with next year with all of the returners we have," Truitt said. "We played toe-to-toe with a good football team, and we look forward to being even better next year."