Entering Friday’s game between Gainesville and North Hall, Red Elephants quarterback Deshaun Watson and Trojan running back Imani Cross were the players to watch.
After Gainesville’s 55-15 thrashing of its rivals, there’s no question who shined brightest.
Watson finished with 351 yards and five touchdowns on 18 of 25 passing. He added 96 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
When his receivers got open, he found them. Even when they weren’t, he fit a tight spiral between two defensive backs for his first touchdown pass. And if he couldn’t do that, he cradled the ball and ate up big chunks of yardage that had the Red Elephants constantly trucking toward the end zone.
It was an impressive show of force that left the Trojans with few answers.
Asked if it was the best game he’d ever played, Watson thought for a minute, smiled and said, “Probably.”
I could have answered that question for him.
His poise in the pocket and his ability to know when to tuck it and run made the quarterback’s impressive performance look easy.
On one play late in the third quarter with Gainesville in comfortable command of the game, Watson stood calmly in the pocket as a defender quickly closed in on him. Casually sidestepping the defender, Watson lazily flicked a pass across the middle that was hauled in by wide receiver Stephen Mason for a 57-yard touchdown pass.
Perhaps the most incredible part about his performance was that Watson could have added two more touchdown passes had he not overthrown two open receivers in the first quarter.
Oh, well. Nobody’s perfect.
But in a crucial game that could decide the directions these rivals take for the rest of the season, Watson nearly was. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
After last year, there were never any guarantees that Watson would be able to follow up his solid freshman season.
But now, three games into the season, the sophomore quarterback has the Red Elephants feeling very confident about where they can go.
After the game, coach Bruce Miller attributed the team’s success to Watson’s breakout game and praised his young quarterback’s command of the playbook.
More than anything, though, he should praise his poise and maturity.
Sure, Watson was never put in a pressure situation in this game. North Hall fell behind early and could never muster enough offense to put the heat on the other sideline.
And a lot of credit should be directed toward Watson’s offensive line, which kept his jersey clean for the bulk of the night.
But the fact that a sophomore quarterback could direct his team with such ease — and not just direct, but completely take over the game — against a rival much more skilled than the scoreboard would indicate is something that should have the Red Elephants very excited for the rest of the season.
“I think we can get a lot better,” Watson said after the game.
David Mitchell is a sports writer for The Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.