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Big Red rules: Gainesville wins long-awaited state title
Red Elephants rout Ware County 49-13 to earn Class AAAAA trophy
Deshaun Watson walks with the rest of the Red Elephants toward buses for the trip to the Georgia Dome and Friday’s Class AAAAA state championship game. - photo by Tom Reed

View a photo slideshow from the championship game

Murphy: Watson brings a golden arm with a team-first attitude

Red Elephants 49, Gators 13

Difference maker: Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson diced up the No. 1 statistical defense in Class AAAAA for 304 yards passing, 74 rushing and five total touchdowns.

Stat that matters: The Red Elephants defense forced three turnovers, one returned for a touchdown and another setting up a second score.

Turning point: With Ware County down 28-7 early in the third quarter but driving into Gainesville territory, Gainesville safety Fred Payne, who had already recovered a fumble for a touchdown, picked off a pass and returned it 67 yards to the Ware County 2 yard line. Gainesville scored two plays later for a 35-7 lead.

ATLANTA — The Gainesville Red Elephants saved their best for last.

It didn’t matter that this was on the biggest stage, against the No. 1 defense in Class AAAAA.

Gainesville routed Ware County 49-13 on Friday night at the Georgia Dome to earn the program its first GHSA state title after falling short in its first six tries.

“This is the best feeling for me ever. It hits me right in the heart,” Gainesville receiver Caleb Hayman said. “I just wanted to play my best for everyone who’s believed in me.”

Hayman was a freshman the last time Gainesville reached the title game in 2009, a 13-12 loss to Peach County in the Class AAA title game.

This time the Red Elephants left no room for error, racing out to a 28-0 lead and never letting up.

Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said it was the best game the team had played all season, in all phases of the game.

“I’m just so happy for Gainesville right now,” Miller said. “The frustration had been there not winning it, but we’re coming home with this one.”

It started with the quarterback. Junior Deshaun Watson set a state career passing record on his third pass of the game, a 10-yard strike to Tray Harrison. He quickly made the record an afterthought, finishing 27-of-35 for 304 yards passing for three touchdowns, and adding 74 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 14 carries.

“Deshaun is an all-around athlete and always does a good job getting the receivers open,” Hayman said.

Hayman was Watson’s favorite target, catching 11 passes for 164 yards and two scores. Fred Payne led the defense with a 39-yard fumble return for a touchdown and a long interception return to set up a second score.

The Red Elephants were even solid on special teams, as Gainesville kicker Gage Turner converted all seven of his extra point tries and routinely put his kickoffs in the back of the end zone.

The offense rolled up 447 total yards, while the defense allowed Ware County 357 — 199 rushing — but just one touchdown until the game was long decided.

The Big Red fans had long since started celebrating by the time the game finally finished. The players were more than happy to join them after the final whistle.

“This wins means so much to our community, alumni and everyone that’s played here at Gainesville before,” Watson said.

Ware County came into the game allowing just 8.4 points per game, and had allowed no more than 24 on their trip to the Georgia Dome.

Gainesville put the Gator defense on the wrong foot from the get-go. The Red Elephants defense held Ware County to a quick three-and-out before the offense did what it has done all season — move downfield and score.

Watson completed all eight of his pass attempts, driving the Red Elephants 77 yards in 10 plays, capped off by a 17-yard touchdown strike to Caleb Hayman on a roll-out.

The Red Elephants defense came up big on Ware County’s second possession to give the ball back to the offense. With the Gators at the Gainesville 41 and needing inches for a first, the defense swarmed ball carrier Xavier Tobler and drove him back for a loss and a turnover on downs.

Gainesville drove downfield again, Watson hitting Hayman for 20 yards down to the 4 to set up a 4-yard run by Watson to put Big Red up 14-0 with 2:39 left in the opening quarter.

Each team fumbled on its next possession, Gainesville losing the ball at the Ware County 1-yard line, after which the Gators put together an extended drive. But a Ware County receiver fumbled after a pass from quarterback Jammar Johnson that would have been good for a first down at the 40-yard line. Payne scooped up the fumble and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown and a 21-0 advantage early in the second.

The Gainesville defense bent but didn’t break on its next drive and watched a 31-yard field goal try sail right at the end of a 12-play drive.

The Red Elephants took advantage of yet another opportunity, going 80 yards on 10 plays for their fourth touchdown of the half. Watson set it up with a 33-yard pass to Hayman, and then finished it with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Rodney Lackey.

Ware County once again put together a long drive late in the second quarter. This time it paid off, with Tobler rumbling in from 2 yards out with 44 seconds left in the half to make it 28-7 at the break.

Watson was 18 for 24 passing for 184 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, along with seven carries for 40 yards rushing and another score.

Watson drove Gainesville downfield again to open the second half, but for the second time, a Gainesville receiver fumbled within 5 yards of the end zone and Ware County recovered.

But Payne came through with an interception and 69-yard return to set the offense up at the 2. Two plays later Watson ran in for the touchdown and a 35-7 lead to virtually seal the win.

Byrd added a rushing score in the third quarter and Hayman caught his second TD from Watson early in the fourth quarter.

Tobler, who led Ware County with 22 carries for 98 yards, added a second score four minutes before the end.

“It’s a great feeling to end my high school career with a ring,” Payne said.

Watson entered the game with 3,707 yards passing and 47 touchdowns with eight interceptions and 1,356 yards rushing and 22 TDs. He needed 17 yards passing to break the state record of 9,052, held by Zach Stanford from Metter High.

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