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Red Elephants sprint into 2nd round
Gainesville advances with 48-27 win over Dalton
Fred Payne of Gainesville eludes Chase Todd of Dalton during a kickoff return Friday in the opening round of the state playoffs at City Park Stadium. - photo by Tom Reed

There way no one of the field Friday at City Park Stadium happier with Gainesville's 48-27 win against Dalton than its coach Bruce Miller.

He preached all week that facing the Catamounts (4-7), which earlier had to forfeit four wins for playing an ineligible player, wasn't going to be a cake walk.

"I'm just glad we won," Miller said. "I knew Dalton was going to be really good and they were.

"I don't know how you could possibly have a tougher first-round game as a region champion."

With the win, Gainesville plays host to Monroe-Albany (6-5) on Friday in the second round in Gainesville. The Tornadoes defeated Baldwin on Friday 12-9 in the first round in Milledgeville.

And Miller was certainly right about Dalton's strength. Dalton was able to string together some long touchdown drives, but wasn't able to keep Red Elephants (10-1) quarterback Deshaun Watson from taking over the game. He finished with seven touchdowns for Gainesville, matching his effort from last Friday in the Region 8-AAA championship game against Stephens County.

Watson finished with 270 passing yards and the team had 467 yards of offense.

"It feels great to come out and get this win," Watson said. "We did a great job of coming out ready to play.

"Our offensive line did an amazing job and gave me time to throw the ball."

Gainesville's biggest play of the night came on the final play of the first half when Watson found 6-foot-2 wide receiver Caleb Hayman in the end zone, who went up for the ball and brought it down for a 35-yard touchdown. The play gave Gainesville a two-touchdown lead going into the second half and a strong sense of momentum.

"That's a play we work on in practice during the week," Hayman said. "I think it was definitely a pretty important play for us to keep the momentum."

Hayman's touchdown was especially critical given Dalton's drive after kickoff in the second half. The Catamounts drove the ball 14 plays, 80 yards, scoring on a 5-yard touchdown catch by McLean Davies from Cole Cafee. Dalton's success on offense was the ground attack led by Tre Bonds (18 carries, 87 yards) and Tre' Beck (10 carries, 104 yards).

However, Gainesville was able to counter that with a long touchdown drive of its own early in the fourth quarter that lasted 17 plays and 58 yards. Watson found junior wide receiver Justin Cantrell for a 5-yard touchdown catch.

The second half was largely back-and-forth, but the quick-strike Gainesville offense was clearly too much to contain. Also in the second half, Watson hit Tray Harrison for a 22-yard touchdown pass, his second touchdown catch on the night.

As usual, Watson was even in passing the ball around to his receivers. Six different Gainesville receivers caught passes and four different players caught a touchdown pass.

"We just have a lot of different guys that can make plays catching the ball," Watson said. "They did a great job."

The biggest offensive play of the night came early in the second quarter for Gainesville. Watson dropped back and hit Harrison on a bubble screen, then went untouched for a 79-yard touchdown catch.

The Red Elephants' ability to capitalize on its opportunities was key since they started the game trailing 7-0 midway through the first quarter. Gainesville turned the ball over on its second possession of the game when freshman Eder Mora tipped a pitch into the backfield and a Dalton player recovered the ball.

The Catamounts scored on the first play of its drive with a 34-yard touchdown run by Hunter Cleary. Dalton's fullback also scored on an 8-yard run in the second quarter.

Gainesville didn't trail for long. Watson scored on a 2-yard run late in the first quarter. Following a Dalton fumble on the ensuing kickoff, Gainesville scored two plays later on a 26-yard touchdown catch by junior Lahius Leverette.

Also factoring into Gainesville's passing game was senior wide receiver Stephen Mason (four catches, 69 yards). His longest catch was 28 yards and set up Watson's first rushing touchdown of the night. Watson's seventh and final touchdown of the night came with a jump over the offensive line for a 3-yard score in the final minute of the game.

With the loss, Dalton's season is now finished.

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