Gainesville at Whitewater
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Wildcats Stadium, Fayetteville
Radio: 1240 AM
Coaches: Gainesville, Bruce Miller; Whitewater, Amos McCreary
Records: Gainesville (10-3); Whitewater (12-1)
Winner plays: Northside-Warner Robins/Ware County winner
Key players: Gainesville, QB Deshaun Watson (6-3, 195 Jr.); LB Devan Stringer (5-10, 190 Jr.); DB Fred Payne (5-11, 180 Sr.). Whitewater, RB Kendall Conley (5-10, 180 Sr.); LB Christian Wafford (5-10, 181 Sr.); OT Pat Dalton (6-7, 345 Sr.).
Prediction: GAINESVILLE. The Red Elephants are playing their best football of season and scoring a pace unmatched anywhere in the state.
More semifinal previews here.
Gainesville coach Bruce Miller made one thing crystal clear with his players early in the week: He didn’t want to hear any talk about playing for a state title at the Georgia Dome before they’ve earned a spot in the game that’s still seven days out.
It’s a tactic he didn’t really have to explain the logic behind to his players, still needing a win in tonight’s Class AAAAA state semifinal game at 7:30 p.m. against Whitewater (12-1) in Fayetteville to secure that privilege.
Last season, Miller and players alike felt they looked too far past state semifinal opponent Burke County, which resulted in a crushing loss.
Tonight, the Red Elephants hope that focusing all week will result in a much sharper performance.
“I know everyone is talking about playing in the Dome again in the halls of the school,” Miller said. “But I told them ‘let’s not talk about that until it happens.’”
Gainesville is in the state semifinals for the 19th time in school history, according to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association, while Whitewater is playing in its first state semifinal game in its nine-year history.
The state championship game for Class AAAAA is at 8:30 p.m. Dec. 14 in Atlanta.
The Red Elephants players were completely on board with Miller’s decision to silence the talk of the state championship game possibility, at least for another week. With many of the same players in place, led by All-State junior quarterback Deshaun Watson, they remember the sting of having the season end with such disappointment in 2011.
Gainesville senior Fred Payne says they’ve done a good job not getting caught up dreaming of winning the program’s first state championship.
“We’re all focused on (tonight) and what we have to get done against Whitewater,” Payne said. “If we win, then we’ll start thinking about playing at the Georgia Dome again.”
Gainesville’s semifinal game is clearly a clash of two very different styles. Watson is the ringleader for the Red Elephants’ high-paced, typically no-huddle offense with 3,480 passing yards and 46 passing touchdowns, along with a team-high 1,262 rushing yards and another 21 touchdowns.
The Red Elephants’ offensive output has been staggering during the postseason, scoring more than 60 in its last two playoff wins (Kell and Harris County).
“It’s like a fast break in basketball,” Whitewater coach Amos McCreary said. “Gainesville is going to try to get it up and down the field in a hurry and try to put up a bunch of points.”
Whitewater, on the other hand, is a program that is primarily run-based. Running behind 6-foot-9 and 368-pound right tackle Pat Dalton, Wildcats running back Kendall Conley leads the Wildcats with 2,014 yards and 36 touchdowns. Last week, Conley had 135 yards and two scores in a 24-3 quarterfinal win against Allatoona.
“Kendall’s a heck of an athlete, and the guys that rush for 2,000 yards usually are,” McCreary added. “I think he sees holes real well, and that’s probably what makes any (one) running back a little more special than the others.”
Miller is certainly keenly aware of how Whitewater’s running back is capable of changing the complexion of a game.
“If we stop their running back, we have a chance,” Miller said. “They’re going to try and make a living with him.
“He scares me.”
Tonight Watson is also going after a state career-passing record. With 8,819 yards passing in just three years, he needs just 224 to break the state record held by Metter’s Zach Stanford (9,052 yards, 2001-2004). Watson has thrown 304 consecutive passes since throwing his last interception earlier this season against Buford.
“It’s hard to believe that he’s had back-to-back 3,000 yards (passing) and 1,000 yards (rushing) seasons,” Miller said.
Gainesville’s quarterback is unequivocal in stating the career passing record is one he wants to own by night’s end.
“Breaking that record is something that means a lot to me,” Watson said. “I’ve put a lot of work into it.”
Watson says that Gainesville’s feverish pace on offense should work in its favor against a Whitewater program that has most starters going both ways. The Red Elephants have also benefited from playing turnover-free ball in the playoffs, along with limiting the penalties.
“I’m so proud of our entire team,” Watson said. “Everyone is always working hard to try and get better.”
Since trailing at halftime 35-21 against Kell in the second round, Gainesville has outscored the opposition 104-20 over the last six quarters. The Red Elephants erased the deficit against the Longhorns with two second-half interceptions, one for a touchdown.
“I feel like our kids have really peaked on both sides of the ball,” Miller added.
On offense, Rodney Lackey is Watson’s top target with 60 catches for 902 yards and 13 touchdowns, while senior Caleb Hayman has 44 catches for 704 yards and another 13 touchdowns.