After Gainesville’s second consecutive turnover resulted in a two-touchdown lead for Clarke Central late in the first quarter, Red Elephants quarterback Deshaun Watson vowed to rally the team.
“I have the keys to the offense,” Watson said. “So I told them to believe in me and I would take them to the promised land.”
Three quarters and six scores later, Gainesville solidified a 49-28 win over the defending co-Region 8-AAAA champion Gladiators on Friday at City Park Stadium.
The Red Elephants remained in a tie for first in 8-AAAAA (made up mostly of former 8-AAAA teams) along with Hall County rival Flowery Branch, which rallied to defeat Heritage 35-27 on Friday.
Watson finished 23-of-32 for 241 yards passing and six touchdowns to go along with a team-high 24 carries for 171 yards and another score.
Sophomore receiver Rodney Lackey caught three of the touchdowns, including a diving grab to complete a 28-point second quarter. The Red Elephants’ defense allowed just one touchdown by Clarke Central (3-4, 3-2) through the final three quarters to allow Watson and the offense to rally and, eventually, run away with the win.
“A little bit of adversity right there in the first, but these kids fought back, a great team effort,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “That was a huge win, it keeps us where we want to be in the region.”
The Red Elephants (7-1, 6-0) have now defeated two of the old 8-AAAA’s three co-region champs from last season. They will meet the third, Flowery Branch (6-2, 6-0), at Falcon Field in the final game of the regular season.
Before that potentially decisive game is Loganville two weeks away and — what Miller said he is ready for — a bye week straight ahead.
“I’m glad to have a week off,” he said. “We can get some bumps and bruises healed.”
As fast as Gainesville kept the tempo Friday night, a week off will certainly be welcome.
Lackey said the team made certain to keep the tempo high throughout the game in order to eventually wear out the Gladiators defense and make a comeback that much quicker.
“We knew that if we played fast they couldn’t stick with us,” said the sophomore, who has impressed both Watson and Miller with how he has developed.
Lackey was making plays from the very beginning Friday night.
Gainesville scored first in an opening quarter that would thereafter be dominated by Clarke Central, which took a 21-7 lead after one.
Neither offense could get a first down on their opening possessions, but on Gainesville’s second possession the Red Elephants went 79 yards, capped by a 36-yard touchdown throw from Watson to Lackey. Watson executed the play action and, with a defender barreling toward him, lofted a pass over the defense and into the arms of Lackey for a 7-0 advantage with 8:35 in the first.
Clarke Central responded in just over two minutes, with running back Jalani Payne (23 carries for 142 yards) bouncing out to the corner for a 3-yard touchdown run. The kick failed, and Gainesville’s lead was cut to 7-6.
On Gainesville’s next drive, the Clarke Central defense swarmed Watson on third-and-long and forced a fumble, which Gladiators junior Kavon Williams recovered, running 15 yards to the end zone. The two-point conversion put Clarke Central ahead by seven.
The Gladiators defense hurried Watson on the next possession as well, forcing another fumble on third-and-long, which Clarke Central recovered at the Gainesville 26-yard line. Fullback Baylor Ward ran in from 1 yard out to finish a five-play drive and put Clarke Central ahead 21-7 with 2:41 left in the first quarter.
It would be Clarke Central’s last touchdown of the half, as the second quarter belonged exclusively to Watson and Gainesville.
The Red Elephants started with a 12-play, 64-yard drive, capped by a 1-yard Watson run to get Gainesville within one score with 11:55 remaining in the second.
Gainesville recovered a Clarke Central fumble on the ensuing kickoff and quickly took advantage, going 37 yards for the tying score — a 13-yard pass from Watson, who rolled out to the right, to Tray Harrison, who snagged the pass just in bounds in the end zone.
Gainesville defensive end Quamon Peoples intercepted a pass from Clarke Central quarterback Cameron Johnson on the next possession, setting up another scoring drive, ending in a 19-yard pass from Watson to Caleb Hayman to take a 28-21 lead.
Gainesville stopped a fake-punt pass from Clarke Central on the next possession and capped off the half with another scoring drive to take a 35-21 lead, finished off with a 13-yard touchdown pass from Watson to a diving Lackey in the end zone.
Clarke Central opened the second half with a scoring drive, finished off with a 5-yard run by Payne, to get back within one score at 35-28.
Gainesville responded with an 11-play drive, which included four straight Watson runs at one point, capped off by a 4-yard pass to Lackey to go ahead 42-28.
Watson threw a 5-yard touchdown pass on a fade to Lahius Leverette in the fourth quarter to account for the final score.
Both teams rolled up the offensive numbers, with Gainesville running for 229 yards and totaling 470, and Clarke Central running for 206 and passing for 189 on 17 of 30 passing by Johnson, who also threw two interceptions, the second by Gainesville’s Fred Payne.
Gainesville has its bye next week and plays Loganville the following Friday in Gainesville, while Clarke Central finishes up a stretch of game against fellow defending region or co-region champs next Friday against Flowery Branch in Athens.