Gainesville at Flowery Branch
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Falcon Field, Flowery Branch
Radio: 102.9-FM, 1330-AM
Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson entered this season as one of the most highly touted juniors in the state. Already with two seasons as a starter under his belt, the Clemson University recruit had already led the Red Elephants to two region championships, four playoff wins, one trip to the state semifinals, and had been named the Class AAA Offensive Player of the Year after a record-breaking sophomore season last fall.
Jackson McDonald took over as the Flowery Branch quarterback in August with considerably fewer credentials. The junior had never started a game under center and played sparingly as a back-up in 2011. And while he inherited a position previously held by four straight signal callers who signed scholarships with FBS teams, at 5-foot-11, 172 pounds, McDonald doesn’t have the prototypical size college recruiters look for.
But the quarterbacks who will meet Friday night at Falcon Field in a game to decide the Region 8-AAAAA championship are far from opposites. In fact, they’ve got quite a bit in common.
Both are threats on the ground as well as through the air, and both helm spread offenses in which much is demanded from the quarterback position.
But above all else, both Watson and McDonald win.
Watson is 29-6 in his tenure as the Red Elephants starting quarterback, and while McDonald’s track record isn’t quite as lengthy, he’s led the Falcons (7-2, 7-0) to seven straight wins and has them sitting in first place in the region entering Friday’s regular season finale.
“He’s kind of learning his role — not just being a football player, but being a leader, and understanding how his play and his decision making affects others,” Griffin said of McDonald. “He’s learned how to manage the offense and the things we want to get accomplished.
“But even as successful as he’s been, he’s still got a long way to go, and he realizes that. Every day he comes to work and wants to get better. Obviously, I’ve been very impressed and pleased with him.”
McDonald has given his coach every reason to be impressed, even after the season got off to a rough start. The Falcons opened against Northside-Warner Robins (No. 1 Class AAAA) and West Forsyth (No. 8 Class AAAAA) and the offense struggled to find its identity in back-to-back losses.
But in the season’s third week and the region opener, something clicked, and it started with McDonald. The Falcons picked up their first win of the season, 45-27 over Cedar Shoals, led by the quarterback’s 350 yards of total offense and five total touchdowns.
They haven’t lost since, and McDonald — along with the emergence of sophomore running back Justin Curry and a talented defense — continues to be a big reason why.
On the season, McDonald has accounted for 25 touchdowns (13 passing, 12 rushing), and has passed for 1,105 yards and run for 605.
“He’s a phenomenal athlete and he can hurt you with his arm and his legs, but what he does best is not put you in a bad situation,” Griffin said. “He’s OK if we call his number to run the ball or call his number to throw it, or read the option and give it to Justin (Curry) or the other running backs. What he does best right now is just understand the offense and make it work.”
Similar to Flowery Branch, Gainesville has had its own slip-ups this year. The Red Elephants (7-2, 6-1) also lost to West Forsyth — the week prior to Flowery Branch — and are coming off an upset to Loganville that ended a seven-game winning streak last week.
Nonetheless, Gainesville is in position to win its fifth consecutive region championship with a victory Friday due largely to the exploits of its quarterback.
Watson leads the area with 2,376 passing yards and 32 touchdowns. He’s completing 70 percent of his passes and hasn’t thrown an interception since Week 2. He’s also run for a team-high 772 yards and 12 scores.
“Well, Deshaun, no doubt, is as good a quarterback as I’ve ever had to go against,” Griffin said. “He’s obviously a great athlete and he manages the game as good as anybody that I’ve ever coached against. He doesn’t just try to get the home-run ball every time. If you take away the deep drops, he’ll find that third and fourth progression and he chips it down to his back out of the backfield. He understands what they do really well, and that makes it extremely tough to defend.”
Those are especially powerful words coming from Griffin, who was the Flowery Branch defensive coordinator in 2009, when the Red Elephants and Falcons tangled twice — once in the final week of the regular season for the region championship and again in the state semifinals, with Blake Sims-led Gainesville winning both games over Connor Shaw and the Falcons.
After a two-year hiatus, Griffin said he’s glad to see the rivalry renewed.
“I don’t think I realized how much excitement it brings our community and our entire county,” he said. “When we got out of it, and now being back in it, you realize what you’ve missed. After two years of not playing anybody in Hall County, you almost wonder how in the world did we get by without it.
“Just knowing that you’ve got two quality programs that try to do things the right way, that have great kids and extremely supportive communities and have a lot at stake, that’s what high school football is about.”