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Gainesville takes region, outlasts Flowery Branch, 55-45

Watson's 6 TDs pace Red Elephants to No. 1 seed in 8-AAAAA

POSTED: November 9, 2013 2:35 a.m.

THE BLITZ: Flowery Branch at Gainesville

High school football highlights from Friday, Nov. 8, 2013: Flowery Branch at Gainesville.

JARED PUTNAM/The Times

Flowery Branch running back Michael Byrd picks up yardage against Flowery Branch in the first quarter of Friday's game at City Park Stadium.

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For the second straight year, Gainesville faced a surging Flowery Branch team in the fourth quarter with a region title on the line.

This time, the Red Elephants didn’t falter.

Led by quarterback Deshaun Watson’s 446 total yards of offense and six touchdowns, Gainesville (9-1, 8-0 Region 8-AAAAA) held off the Falcons’ 16-point fourth-quarter rally to win 55-45 and secure the Region 8-AAAAA title on Friday at City Park Stadium.

“We just stayed focused,” Watson said. “We played our game and didn’t let the crowd get to us. At times we got a little frustrated, but I told everyone to cool down and we finished the game.”

The Red Elephants’ 55-29 lead with 9:35 remaining in the game seemed relatively safe. But a 4-yard touchdown run by Flowery Branch’s Jeremiah Goss four minutes later and a 17-yard scoring pass from Falcons quarterback Jackson McDonald to receiver Cameron Davis with 3:26 left proved otherwise.

The Falcons (7-3, 7-1) regained possession with 2:29 remaining and a chance to make it a single-possession game, only to cough up a fumble two plays later. Gainesville linebacker J.D. Sosebee jumped on the loose ball, which slipped out of the hands of wide receiver A’lencio Graham, and the Red Elephants held on to the ball the rest of the way.

“That stopped the momentum, and we started running clock,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “We were able to run it out.”

The Red Elephants won their first region title since 2011, and now set their sights on winning a second straight Class AAAAA state title. They are host to M.L. King in the first round next Friday.

Flowery Branch is home against Stephenson.

For Watson, the win captured a goal that escaped him last year, and set up the next one for the postseason.

“It’s a great feeling,” Watson said. “It’s my senior year and my last go-around. It’s the first goal, now we have the big goal we’re going for.”

Gainesville avenged its 35-34 loss to Flowery Branch last year, when the Falcons rallied late and stopped Watson on a final two-point conversion to stun the Red Elephants for the region title.

This season, Gainesville enters the playoffs with an eight-game winning streak and plenty of momentum.

“We realized how big it was tonight, but it’s going to be even bigger two or three months from now,” Miller said. “It was one of those things where we hung in there and kept fighting and kept fighting.”

The offensive shootout, which featured 1,046 yards between the two teams, hinged heavily on the play of the quarterbacks. Watson and Flowery Branch starter Jackson McDonald combined for 11 total touchdowns.

Watson was 14 of 27 passing for 245 yards and four touchdowns, and rushed for another 201 yards and two scores.

The state’s all-time leading passer and Clemson commit reached the 12,000-yard mark in the game, but used his feet to make big plays for much of the night.

“They told me they were going to open it up for me and let me run it a little bit,” Watson said. “ (Gainesville running back Michael Byrd) had little bit of a hurt ankle, so they put the ball in my hand. I took advantage of it.”

McDonald was 23 of 31 passing for 254 yards and two touchdowns, but also rushed for 48 yards and scored three more times. He scored the first touchdown of the game early in the first quarter on a 30-yard scamper that required him to scoop up a botched snap, narrowly escape a series of Gainesville defenders in the backfield and use his blockers to find the end zone.

Flowery Branch missed the PAT, and the Red Elephants took a one-point lead two minutes later on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Watson to Jay Gaudlock.

Gainesville led the rest of the way.

Jack Cumisky recovered a fumble on the ensuing drive in Falcon territory, and Watson punched in his first rushing touchdown two plays later. On the Red Elephants’ next drive, Watson hit Chastin Newman from 37 yards for their first of two touchdown connections of the game for a 21-6 through the opening quarter.

Flowery Branch didn’t score again until early in the second, when McDonald found an open Davis for a 17-yard touchdown. A successful two-point conversion put the Red Elephants back within a touchdown.

The short deficit didn’t last long. Gainesville regained a two-touchdown lead with 6:05 left in the second when Devan Stringer intercepted McDonald’s pass on the Flowery Branch 28-yard line and sprinted into the end zone for the score.
Watson added a 36-yard touchdown run — one of his three runs of more than 30 yards in the game — shortly before the buzzer to give Gainesville a 35-14 halftime lead.

The Red Elephants went up 42-14 early in the third quarter on Watson’s 64-yard scoring pass to Newman, which was countered by McDonald’s 2-yard touchdown pass on the ensuing drive.

The two teams exchanged blows on offense throughout the third quarter, with Watson adding a 29-yard touchdown pass to Orrin Ragland and McDonald countering with a goal-line touchdown run.

Gainesville kicker Gage Turner hit a 25-yard field goal late in the third quarter and provided the Red Elephants’ final score of the night in the fourth on a 26-yard attempt.

Goss led all running backs in the game with 192 yards on 10 carries. Newman and Davis each pulled down 113 yards and two touchdowns.



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