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Gainesville's prolific offense faces stingy Tucker defense in semifinals

POSTED: December 5, 2013 10:06 p.m.
Scott Rogers | The Times/

Josh Holderfield carries the ball for the Red Elephants during their game with Salem in October at City Park Field.

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Deshaun Watson couldn’t help but smile.

The state’s all-time leading passer was excited when presented with the notion of facing a talented defense like the top-ranked Tucker Tigers in tonight’s Class AAAAA state semifinal game at Hallford Stadium in Clarkston.

“I love playing great teams like them,” Watson said. “They’ve had a great time all year at shutting down offenses, so it is a great chance to show everyone around the state that we are going in there and that we’re the best team in the state.”

Tonight’s semifinal matchup will feature a prolific Gainesville offense that has eclipsed the 40-point mark 11 out of 13 times this season going head-to-head against a Tucker defense that hasn’t allowed more than 38 points in a game since 1999.

It’s also a matchup pitting two teams that have recent state championship success. Tucker won the Class AAAA title in 2008 and 2011, while Gainesville won the 2012 Class AAAAA championship.

Now another trip to a state title game inside the Georgia Dome is on the line.

“You just get excited because it should be a terrific ball game,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “What a challenge, to get challenged by a good team like Tucker. They’re going to be good.

“If you walk off the field after them and you’re fortunate enough to win, you can say, ‘hey, we beat a good football team tonight.’”

This season, Gainesville is averaging 49.3 points per game, while Tucker is limiting opponents to just 12.7 points per game and is coming off a 29-0 shutout over last season’s state runner-up Ware County.

The Tigers will also line up one of the most talented rosters in the state to match up with Gainesville’s large amount of skill players on offense.

Currently, 15 players on the Tigers’ defensive roster alone are listed as Division I prospects on Rivals.com, a national college recruiting website.

With that much talent, Gainesville has taken notice.

“Their offense is very ball control, and defensively, they don’t give up many points,” Miller said. “They play good on defense. It’s going to be two objects going against each other and we are going to see what happens, but I do know they are very good on defense.”

In the front seven, defensive tackle Elisha Shaw (offers from Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Ohio State, among others) along with linebacker Detric Dukes, a Georgia commit, and two-star prospect Justin Hughes make it difficult for opposing teams to find a consistent rushing attack.

Then in the secondary, the Tigers have three marque players that pose a threat to any opposing passing attack, like Gainesville.

Kirk Tucker is a three-star prospect who is committed to Stanford, while senior Dominick Sanders has offers from Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio State and Vanderbilt. Junior Duke Shelley, a four-star prospect, is also gaining much interest from Clemson and Georgia.

“We know their guys are very skilled and all their guys are probably going D-1, “said Watson, who will enroll at Clemson in January.

“That doesn’t change anything we do and it doesn’t faze any of our receivers or me.”

While the Tucker defense might be one of the most talented that Gainesville has faced since being limited to just 14 points in a 21-point loss to Buford on Sept. 6, the Red Elephants believe they may have one of the more potent offensive attacks the Tigers will see this season.

“I hope. I think that is the one thing we’ve got going for us,” Miller said. “With the tempo we play with and the weapons we’ve got, it isn’t just one person, maybe we can spread them out and get some isolated situations and get some things our way.”

For Gainesville, Watson has thrown for 3,560 yards with 46 touchdowns, while also rushing for 1,016 yards with 13 more scores. He’s even caught a pair of touchdown passes this season.

In the receiving game, the Red Elephants feature three threats in Jay Gaudlock (1,217 yards, 14 touchdowns), Rodney Lackey (772 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Chastin Newman (741 yards, 8 touchdowns).

Junior Michael Byrd has become a threat in both the rushing and passing games. He has 990 yards rushing and 563 yards receiving with 17 total touchdowns this season.

“We are just going to have to take it little by little and eventually they will let us get a big play,” Byrd said. “Then we have to take advantage of it.”

Gainesville, however, is coming off a four-turnover performance in a 42-28 win over Mundy’s Mill last week. It was a less than stellar performance for the Red Elephants, but one that still shows Gainesville’s potential to score points even on an off night.

“Just imagine if we had those four turnovers back, that’s four more touchdowns probably,” said Watson, who said his left shoulder that ailed him last week is completely better.

“We still haven’t reached our highest peak, hit our max point.”



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