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Red Elephants face ‘unfinished business’ in Dome

Gainesville reaches state final with 28-14 win over Whitewater

POSTED: December 7, 2012 11:54 p.m.

FAYETTEVILLE — From the coaches to the players to the fans, two words circulated on the field after the game Friday night.

Unfinished business.

Gainesville took down Whitewater 28-14 in the GHSA football state semifinal, setting up a return trip to the Georgia Dome, where the Red Elephants lost in heartbreaking fashion three years ago.

“The last time I was there it was upsetting,” said Red Elephants senior defensive lineman Conner Calvert. “So we’ve got unfinished business to take care of.”

Gainesville will play Ware County at 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in the Class AAAAA state title game. Ware County upset No. 1 Northside-Warner Robins 24-17 in overtime to advance.

“We’ve gotten back here; now let’s see how we do,” said Gainesville coach Bruce Miller, who tempered the players’ celebration by telling them after the game that they had not yet met their final goal.

The Georgia Dome is also the stage where Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson would like to finish his quest to break the state’s career passing record. The junior finished just 16 yards shy of the record (9,062) as the Red Elephants spent much of the second half leaning on the running game to run out the clock.

Watson was focused on the win, not the record, Friday night.

“It’s very exciting. The last time we went I was in the eight grade and I was in the stands watching, and I told myself that I wanted to get to the state championship, and now I am,” he said. “I wasn’t really focused on the record, I was just trying to get the victory.

“Now next week I can accomplish that in an even bigger game.”

Watson finished 13-for-25 passing for 227 yards, along with one touchdown and his first interception since Week 2 of the regular season. But he did more than just throw, rushing for 94 yards and another score on 23 carries, and caught a big 14-yard pass on a wide receiver reverse thrown from Tray Harrison.

Gainesville running back Michael Byrd added 78 yards rushing and two touchdowns on just nine carries, and added 35-yard reception.

The Red Elephants ran for 196 yards and compiled 437 total yards, with two turnovers.

But after two straight 60-point outbursts by the Gainesville offense, this time it was the defense that carried the load.

The Red Elephants held Whitewater running back Kendall Conley, who came into the game with over 2,000 yards rushing, to 97 yards on 27 carries. They held the Wildcats to 313 total yards of offense and forced three turnovers, all on fumbles.

Calvert credited the defense’s success against Conley on being well-prepared, saying they had watched film every day after lifting weights.

“It all starts with preparation,” he said. 

The game couldn’t have started any better for Gainesville. Whitewater fumbled the opening kickoff and Gainesville recovered just 35 yards from the end zone.

But the Whitewater defense made one of a number of big first-half stops, holding Gainesville on fourth-and-1 after Watson slipped after getting the snap.

In the first half though, the Gainesville defense was even better, holding Whitewater to just one touchdown.

The Wildcats had a great opportunity on their second possession, going on an 11-play drive, but a chop block pushed the hosts back from the 9-yard line and they had to settle for a 37-yard field goal try that went wide right.

Gainesville took over and came up with an 80-yard drive, which included a 68-yard pass to Chastin Newman. It was capped by a 2-yard touchdown run by Watson on fourth down.

The Red Elephants went up 14-0 early in the second quarter on a drive that started with a 35-yard pass to Michael Byrd, who caught a short pass from a scrambling Watson and slipped by a couple of defenders to turn it into a big gain.

Byrd finished the drive by running in from 2 yards out to put Gainesville up 14-0 with 5:51 left in the half.
Whitewater finally broke through on its next possession. Conley took a draw on fourth-and-11 and ran 28 yards for the score to cap a 10-play drive that cut Gainesville’s lead to 14-6.

But the Red Elephants took back the two-score lead before halftime, going nine plays and 36 yards in 1:36 after recovering a Conley fumble.

Watson finished with a 1-yard touchdown pass, in the face of defenders, to Rodney Lackey. He finished the half 7-of-15 for 181 yards passing, leaving him just 62 yards short of the career passing record.

But the Red Elephants went to a run-heavy game plan in the second half to hold the lead, especially after Byrd finished Gainesville’s first drive of the second half with a 55-yard run up the middle for a touchdown and a 28-6 lead with 11:15 left in the third.

“We felt confident in our defense,” Miller said of the decision to play a more conservative second half. “We just didn’t want to give (Conley) a lot of time to get loose.”

The strategy worked, as Gainesville’s combination of running the clock and solid defense kept Whitewater off the board until 4:59 remaining in the game, when Wildcats quarterback Jay Ashley (9 of 16 passing for 137 yards) found Jake Carlson for a 9-yard touchdown.

Whitewater receiver Trevor Morgan led the offense with 104 yards receiving on six catches.

Chastin Newman led the Gainesville receiving corps with three catches for 80 yards.

In 2009, the Red Elephants fell to Peach County 13-12 in the title game after they went for a two-point conversion to win it down by one and came up short. Gainesville had reached the semifinals for the second consecutive season and third time in four years. It was Whitewater’s first trip to the fourth round.

Wildcats running back Kendall Conley entered the game with 2,014 yards and 36 touchdowns, meaning Gainesville had to face its second 2,000-yard rusher in a row.

Watson entered the game with 8,819 yards passing over three years, and needed 243 to break the state record held by Metter’s Zach Stanford (9,052 yards, 2001-2004).

Watson also entered having thrown 304 consecutive passes since his last interception earlier this season against Buford, a streak that was broken on his 23rd pass of the night.


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