Gainesville left no doubt that it is the best team in Region 8-AAA.
Behind the strong right arm of sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson and a superb defensive effort, the Red Elephants (9-1) raced to a 62-7 win over Stephens County on Friday at City Park Stadium to take their fourth consecutive region championship and top seed in the state playoffs.
On Friday, Gainesville plays host to Dalton (4-6), the No. 4 seed out of Region 7-AAA, in the opening round of the state playoffs in Gainesville. The Catamounts were forced to forfeit four wins from earlier in the season for playing an ineligible player.
"We've been working all season for this," said Watson, who finished the game with five passing touchdowns and 340 yards. "We're trying to have a championship season and we're on a mission to get to the Georgia Dome (state finals)."
Gainesville coach Bruce Miller had high praise for the effort of his entire team. It was clearly the best the entire team had performed all season.
"It was just a super night all around," Miller said. "If you would have told me four years ago that we were about to do this right here, I'd take it."
Watson was hitting his receivers in stride for long passes all night. Junior Tray Harrison led the way with seven catches for 179 yards and four touchdowns. His touchdown catches were for 23, 36, 38 and 28 yards.
"We're just trying to execute with every possession," Harrison said. "Me and Deshaun have a very strong connection.
"We have a connection like (former Gainesville stars) Tai-ler (Jones) and Blake (Sims) did (in 2009)."
Equally as impressive as Gainesville's precision on offense was the way its defense took control. Led by senior nose tackle Jeremiah Ledbetter, the Gainesville defense stayed in the Stephens County backfield all night and held junior Chaz Thornton to 103 yards on 18 carries.
Except for Thornton's 81-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, the Gainesville defense swarmed to Thornton and kept his gains small. It broke a streak of five straight games for Thornton topping 200 yards.
"Our defensive line played an amazing game," Miller said. "And our defensive coaches did a great job getting us ready for this game."
The hardest hit of the night came from Gainesville senior Joseph Haley on a Stephens County receiver who was trying to go up and haul in a pass. The hit jarred the ball loose before the receiver hit the ground.
Dallas DeFoor and Eli Nwefo had interceptions from the secondary for Gainesville in the second half. The Red Elephants' defense held the Indians to one pass completion.
"It feels amazing to have a game like this," said Gainesville safety Fred Payne. "We're trying to make it to state and play in the Georgia Dome on Dec. 11."
Even when things went wrong for Gainesville, they turned it into something special. Leading 21-7 early in the second quarter, Watson dropped the snap but quickly recovered the ball and fired a strike to Harrison into the end zone for a 38-yard touchdown. Watson followed that up with a 12-yard touchdown run less than three minutes later.
Six of Gainesville's scoring drives took less than two minutes off the clock.
Right before halftime, Watson connected with senior Stephen Mason on a 16-yard touchdown strike in the back of the end zone. Gainesville started the drive at midfield but got down field very quickly with a 43-yard pass completion to junior Lahius Leverette on the first play of the drive. Watson completed passes to four different receivers before giving way to backup Mikey Gonzalez in the second half.
"We're all very consistent and all able to make big plays on this offense," said Watson, who rushed for 86 yards.
The Gainesville defense set the tone from the beginning, holding Stephens County to a three-and-out on its first possession. When Gainesville got the ball, it marched 89 yards and scored on a 23-yard pass to Harrison from Watson. Harrison set up his own touchdown catch with a great balancing act on the sideline to haul in a 35-yard pass and get both feet down in bounds.
On the next drive, a 20-yard catch by Mason set up Watson's first touchdown run of the night.
Late in the game, Gonzalez got in and scored on a pair of touchdown runs (1 and 25 yards).