MONROE — With sole possession of first place in the subregion on the line, the No. 8 Gainesville Red Elephants pulled out every play in the book to secure a win.
Linebacker A.J. Johnson scored three touchdowns out of the wildcat formation, wide receiver Michael Lorentz threw a 36-yard touchdown pass, and the Red Elephants rolled to a 49-17 win over No. 9 Monroe Area on Friday at Hurricanes Stadium in Monroe.
"We came in ready to play," said senior Devon Pierce, who had 61 yards of total offense. "It was a good challenge and we did our job tonight."
Playing a defense that entered Friday's game surrendering only 4.8 points per game, the Red Elephants (6-1, 3-0 Region 8B-AAA) exploded for 28 points in the second quarter to put the Purple Hurricanes (6-1, 2-1) on their heels.
"They were a good football team," Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said of the Purple Hurricanes. "We got some big plays out of some great players."
Especially Johnson, who started the second-quarter scoring barrage with a 2-yard run that was set up by a Monroe Area fumble and a 65-yard pass from Deshaun Watson to Stephen Mason. On the play, Watson escaped from the arms of two Purple Hurricanes, including Notre Dame verbal commit Stephon Tuitt, rolled to his right and lofted a pass over a linebacker into Masons hands.
Monroe Area coach Matt Fligg said that play was the turning point in the game.
"We really thought we had a good feel on offense," Fligg said. "Our game plan was working and then we turn it over."
Watson and Mason connected on a 23-yard pass on Gainesville's next possession that set up a 28-yard touchdown run by Watson to give the Elephants a comfortable 21-3 lead. Watson finished with 156 yards passing and had 78 of Gainesville's 295 yards rushing. Mason had a team-high 106 yards on five receptions.
Things got worse for Monroe Area later in the quarter when starting quarterback Demontavious Smith suffered a shoulder injury and left the game for good. With Smith out, Monroe Area's offense relied on the legs of Tre Burdette, who scored two touchdowns and ran for 104 of his 116 yards in the first half.
Burdette's first touchdown followed Watson's score, as the senior running back capped a four-play, 68-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run. Burdette had 43 yards rushing on the drive.
With the score 21-10, Gainesville used its speed and creativity to boost that lead to 35-10. The first score came on a jet screen to Keyontra Harrison, who burst up the middle then down the sideline for a 57-yard touchdown.
Following a big fourth-down stop by Gainesville's defense, Miller called for a wide receiver pass by Lorentz that worked to perfection.
"We have about seven or eight trick plays and we used one, and it'll now go to the bottom of the list," Miller said.
While the trick play excited the Gainesville faithful and put the game out of reach, Gainesville's defense and its ability to force turnovers were why the Red Elephants find themselves poised for a berth in the region championship game.
"We came out hard and everybody got to the ball," said Johnson, who had 42 yards rushing and multiple tackles for a loss. "We tried to get as many hats to the ball as we could."
The first time Johnson got his hat on the ball caused a fumble in the first quarter. That fumble followed a Gainesville fumble on its first possession and led to a 14-yard touchdown by Johnson.
"We practice all week to get better than the week before," Miller said. "These guys are playing with confidence. That was a type of performance you'd see in the playoffs."
With the win Friday, the Red Elephants all but assured themselves of reaching the postseason and playing for their third straight region title.