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Watson, Gainesville crank it up early in 58-8 victory
State's all-time top passer tosses 3 TDs in 1st half as Gainesville breezes
Salem Quarterback Licash Lackey tries to get away from the Gainesville High defense Friday night during the first half of the Red Elephants’ win at City Park Stadium.

Red Elephants 58, Seminoles 8

Difference maker: Deshaun Watson threw for three touchdowns, completing 18 of 23 passes for 215 yards.

Stat that matters: Gainesville racked up 392 yards of total offense, while forcing four Salem turnovers on the night and limiting the Seminoles to just 188 yards.

Turning point: On the first possession of the game, Salem went for it on fourth down at its own 28. Gainesville needed just four plays to score its first touchdown. That was all the Red Elephants needed as they didn’t look back and secured a fourth-straight region victory.

Who’s next: Gainesville continues region play when it visits Clarke Central in Athens next week. Salem is idle next week and returns to action Sept. 25 against Apalachee.

It didn’t take long for Deshaun Watson and the Gainesville Red Elephants to find their groove on Friday night.

Gainesville used three first-half touchdown passes from Watson, the state’s all-time leading passer, to cruise to a 58-8 win over the Salem Seminoles at City Park Stadium.

“(Deshaun) just continues to get it done,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “He hasn’t gotten to play a lot because we’ve been up so much and we’re trying to get Mickey (Gonzalez) in there to get some experience. But we’ll take a victory.”

With the win, the Red Elephants (6-1, 4-0) remained in first place in Region 8-AAAAA heading into next week’s showdown with Clarke Central in Athens. Going into Friday night, the Gladiators and Red Elephants were tied with Flowery Branch for first place in the region.

Following Friday night’s win, the focus quickly turned to next week’s showdown.

“I think it is going to be a challenge,” Watson said.

Added Miller: “It is a very big challenge. It is a tough place to play.”

Like much of the season, Watson didn’t play a lot on Friday night and spent the majority of the second half with his shoulder pads off watching and resting for next week’s game. After throwing three TDs in the first half, the Clemson commitment threw just one pass in the second half before he was replaced by Gonzalez and most of the backup Red Elephant offense.

But when he was in there, Watson was sharp and electric, as usual.

He needed just four plays to lead Gainesville to its first touchdown of the night, connecting with Orrin Ragland for a 5-yard score.

The following possession, Watson hit Rodney Lackey for an 8-yard touchdown, making the score 14-0.

After throwing an interception on a miscommunication with his receiver in the red zone, Watson rebounded and found Chastin Newman on a 15-yard score, giving Gainesville a 21-0 lead.

“We always want to score every drive,” Watson said. “And get a big lead on a team.”

Michael Byrd added a first-half touchdown to give the Red Elephants a 28-0 lead, which was followed by a 39-yard field goal from Gage Turner and a Chandler Newton 37-yard interception return that made the score 38-0.

Newton’s interception was the first of three for the Gainesville defense. The Red Elephants intercepted passes on the first two Salem drives of the second half, both of which led to touchdowns.

“The defense is just playing good right now,” Miller said. “They’re playing good, making plays when we need to make them. The defense is getting a lot of three-and-outs. We just have to keep it up. It isn’t going to get any easier.”

After Byrd opened the half with a 3-yard touchdown run, Gainesville’s Lewis Cousins intercepted Seminoles quarterback Licash Lackey, who also fumbled in the first half.

Just a few plays later, Gonzalez found Chris Williamson on a 15-yard touchdown pass, the duo’s first of two scores on the night. Following an interception by Brenton Merritt, Gonzalez and Williamson connected on an 8-yard score.

Gainesville lost its shutout with just 65 seconds remaining when Salem backup quarterback Gerald Walker threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Robert Cyrus. The Seminoles converted the two-point conversion.

Watson finished the night 18 of 23 passing for 215 yards with three touchdowns and the interception. He also added 47 yards rushing on six carries. Most impressively, Watson completed passes to six different receivers, including three different on the touchdown plays.

The ability to connect with several receivers opens up the Gainesville offense, making it even more difficult to stop.

“They can’t key on just one guy,” Watson said. “They have to key on the whole offense and that is the best thing about the offense. We spread them out and make them play east to west.”

Byrd led Gainesville in rushing, finishing with 70 yards on 12 carries with his two scores. Jay Gaudlock led the Red Elephants in receiving. The senior hauled in seven passes for a game-high 69 yards.