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WINDER — Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson recorded five total scores, junior receiver Rodney Lackey added three receiving touchdowns and the Red Elephants did more than enough to secure a 49-6 victory on Friday night against Apalachee at R. Harold Harrison Stadium.
But Gainesville coach Bruce Miller wasn’t all that pleased beyond the fact that it makes Big Red now 2-0 in Region 8-AAAAA.
“We didn’t play well,” he said. “We didn’t improve this week; that’s the thing that bothered me. I didn’t see anything that we improved on.”
The Red Elephants defeated fellow region opponent Winder-Barrow 67-0 the week before, with Watson and most of the starters not needing to play much more than a half.
This week, Apalachee did enough on defense and offense to make the starters necessary for virtually the entire game. Gainesville was able to build an early, 21-0 lead after the first quarter but was unable to turn that lead into a rout until late in the game.
That Wildcats’ performance, which included a touchdown drive that took up nearly the entire third quarter, was a good sign for coach Shane Davis.
“We were better on special teams tonight, we were better on the offensive side of the ball tonight, we were better on the defensive side of the ball tonight, especially in the first half,” Davis said. “Our kids were better; our kids played with some passion.
“We got better.”
Still, Gainesville has the playmakers to more than make up for not playing its best on a Friday night.
Watson finished 26-of-32 for 399 yards passing and four touchdowns, and added a rushing score before taking a seat halfway through the final quarter.
Lackey had six catches for 110 yards, three of those catches being for touchdowns. Gainesville’s Jay Gaudlock led all receivers with nine catches for 151 yards and a touchdown. Running back Michael Byrd had seven catches for 102 yards to go along with 11 carries for 106 yards and a score.
Fullback Justin Skinner led Apalachee with 17 carries for 51 yards, while senior wingback Jody Mathis scored the Wildcats’ lone touchdown on a 5-yard run to finish the 14-play, eight-minute, 39-second drive to start the third quarter and make it 28-6.
Gainesville showed off its big-play power by responding with a score of its own less than a minute later on a short pass from Watson to Lackey. It was Lackey’s third and final touchdown reception.
“All our playmakers can make plays,” Miller said. “Lackey made several huge plays tonight.”
The Apalachee defense also made plays, however, which helped to keep Gainesville’s offense somewhat in check.
The Wildcats recovered two fumbles and senior defensive back Kintavious Merritt snared an interception on the night.
Gainesville also recovered an Apalachee fumble and grabbed an interception.
Early on though, Big Red could do little wrong.
Gainesville put together a near perfect opening quarter, scoring a touchdown on each of their three first-quarter possessions and holding Apalachee without a first down until late in the quarter.
The Red Elephants received the ball to open the game and worked exclusively through the air, with Watson completing 5 of 6 passes, culminating with a 15-yard pass to Gaudlock on third down to open the scoring a little over a minute into the contest.
Apalachee went three-and-out on its first possession to give the ball back to Gainesville, which went with the ground game. Running back Michael Byrd carried the ball three times during the 55-yard, six-play drive and ran 15 yards to give Gainesville a 14-0 lead 6:44 in after age Gage Turner’s second successful PAT.
After another Apalachee three-and-out, Gainesville needed just four plays to cover 55 yards. Watson hit wide receiver Rodney Lackey near the sideline and the junior raced his way to a 27-yard touchdown reception.
The Apalachee offense finally found a successful formula on its third possession late in the first quarter, with fullback Justin Skinner finding holes in the middle of the defensive line and running for two first downs before the Big Red defense was finally able to stop the drive.
The Gainesville offense gave it right back to Apalachee on the third play of its next drive. After catching the ball and running for a first down, Byrd collided with an Apalachee player to knock the ball loose, and the Wildcats recovered 34 yards from the end zone.
The Gainesville defense made up for the turnover, as four plays later Gainesville defensive back Lewis Cousins picked off Apalachee quarterback Chance Rodriguez’s desperation fourth-down heave.
Gainesville’s ensuing offensive possession also ended in a turnover with Apalachee senior defensive back Kintavious Merritt stepping in front of a Watson pass and returning it to the Gainesville 26-yard line, the closest the Wildcats had been to the end zone.
Once again the Gainesville defensive held up, and Apalachee turned it over on downs.
This time, the Red Elephant offense didn’t leave much time for yet another turnover. Watson completed 3 of 4 passes on a four-play, 72-yard drive that ended with a 46-yard touchdown pass over the top to Lackey to put Gainesville ahead 28-0 with less than two minutes remaining in the half.
Apalachee punter Shane Burnett connected on his fourth punt of the half to end the Wildcats next drive, and Gainesville finished the half with Turner missing a 46-yard field goal try as time expired.
Apalachee chewed up most of the third quarter with its 80-yard touchdown drive, which included runs by five different running backs and a 20-yard pass from wildcat package quarterback Alantae Billings to Kent Knowles – Apalachee’s lone pass completion on the night – to set up the score.
Watson scored early in the fourth on his one-and-only run, an 11-yarder, to make the score 42-6, and backup running back Mesia Dorsey scored Gainesville’s final score on a 1-yard run with six seconds remaining in the game.