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Posted: Saturday, November 9th 2013 at 1:49am

Gainesville claims shootout victory to clinch 8-AAAAA crown (VIDEO)

By Morgan Lee Editor
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Gainesville's JD Sosebee, right, forces a fumble from Flowery Branch's Jackson McDonald during the Red Elephants' 55-45 win on Friday at City Park. / photo: David Weikel

GAINESVILLE -- Deshaun Watson knows he’s going to be sore on Saturday -- and he doesn’t care one bit.

He’s got a nice piece of hardware to help him feel much better.

Gainesville and Watson had to battle to the last to earn it, but the Red Elephants fended off Flowery Branch 55-45 on Friday at City Park to claim the Region 8-AAAAA championship.

Watson did much of the damage for the Red Elephants, racking up 446 yards and six touchdowns -- including a game-high 201 yards rushing.

“I’m a little sore; I’m a little beat up, but you expect that in a game like this,” said Watson, who put up a season-high in rushing. “This was a region championship game, a huge game, and it was huge for us to go out and win it.”

Watson and Gainesville’s offense did plenty to clinch the title in a shootout that featured almost 1,100 yards of offense and 100 points -- though the Falcons actually outgained the Red Elephants 524-522

It was the Red Elephants’ defense that came up with the clinching play, however, forcing and recovering a fumble with 2:29 remaining to halt a furious Falcons fightback after the visitors trailed by as many as four touchdowns in the second half.

Gainesville defensive back Chris Byrd jarred the ball loose near midfield, while JD Sosebee recovered -- part of three takeaways for the night for the Red Elephants, who made the most of each turnover.

“We never quit, and I’m so proud of my teammates and how we kept fighting,” said senior linebacker Devan Stringer, who came up with a big turnover of his own on the night -- a 22-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter. “This feels amazing. It hurt so much last year not getting the region title, and we had been thinking about it all season.”

Flowery Branch nipped Gainesville for last year’s 8-AAAAA title, and made the Red Elephants sweat at times for the 2013 version -- especially in the fourth quarter when the visitors grabbed the game’s momentum thanks to back-to-back touchdowns that pulled the Falcons within 10 points with over three minutes remaining.

“It was like being between a rock and a hard place for a minute there,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “We played excellent at times tonight, but they got on a roll there late, and we needed a big play to make sure we had it. We got it though. These guys never quit, even when we were struggling, and I’m proud of them.”

There weren’t many struggles for the Red Elephants offense, especially early, as No. 3 Gainesville (9-1, 8-0 Region 8-AAAAA) built a 21-6 first quarter lead that extended to 49-21 in the third quarter. Watson wasn’t perfect, completing 14 of 27 passes with an interception -- but his playmaking skills more than made up for it, as he rushed 23 times and tossed scoring passes to Jay Gauclock, Chastin Newman (two) and Orrin Ragland.

Yet Falcons quarterback Jackson McDonald often matched Watson play for play – highlighted by a second half performance that saw the senior run for two touchdown passes and throw for another. McDonald finished the night completing 23 of 31 passes for 254 yards and two scores, while also rushing for 48 yards and three scores. Flowery Branch running back Jeremiah Goss also rumbled his way to 192 yards and two scores.

The Falcons (7-3, 7-1) will now look to bounce back in the first round of the state playoffs, when they play host to Stephenson from Region 6-AAAAA.

Flowery Branch came out strong, marching 80 yards to open the contest -- almost all on the ground -- including a jaw-dropping 30-yard touchdown scramble from McDonald in which the quarterback reversed field and broke four tackles before finding the end zone. The point after failed, but the Falcons still held a 6-0 advantage out of the gate.

Gainesville answered just two minutes later.

Watson found Gaudlock for a 9-yard scoring strike and Gage Turner drilled the point after kick for a 7-6 lead -- an advantage the Red Elephants would not yield the remainder of the half.

Gainesville stretched its lead less than 1:30 later, as Sosebee forced a fumble that Jack Cumisky recovered at the Falcons 17 yard-line. Watson did the rest, bulling into the end zone from 6 yards for a 14-6 lead.

The Red Elephants made it 21-6 with 2:26 left in the first quarter when Watson found Newman (6 catches, 113 yards, 2 TDs) on a quick slant that the receiver took 38 yards, sprinting past the Flowery Branch defense into the end zone.

Yet the Falcons refused to yield and came up with their first defensive stop seconds before the end of the quarter, forcing a fumble that they recovered at the Gainesville 41.

Flowery Branch’s offense faced a fourth and 2 on the drive but came up with an impressive response, McDonald lofting a touchdown pass down the middle to Cameron Davis (9 catches, 113 yards, 2 TDs). A two-point run from Justin Thomson pulled the visitors within 21-14 with 10:11 left in the half, and Flowery Branch began gaining momentum, intercepting Watson on the ensuing drive -- Jeremy James picking off the pass in the end zone.

Stringer was having none of it.

The Gainesville linebacker came up with an interception of his own, snagging a Flowery Branch pass over the middle and returning it 22 yards for a 28-14 advantage.

The score swung the momentum back into the Red Elephants’ favor, and Gainesville took advantage, Watson leading a scoring drive just before the interval on some nifty runs -- including a 36-yard cutback with 1:06 left in the half for a 35-14 lead that the Red Elephants took to the locker room.

Gainesville maintained its momentum early in the third quarter, as Watson again found the scoring touch when he scrambled and hit Newman for a 64-yard touchdown pass that took the senior over 12,000 yards passing for his career -- and he was far from finished.

Watson added a 29-yard touchdown pass to Ragland with 7:21 left in the quarter -- answering a 2-yard scoring run from the Falcons after McDonald crashed into the end zone -- for a 49-21 advantage.

The Falcons kept fighting, however, McDonald scoring again in the third on a 3-yard keeper with 4:38 left in the quarter, pulling within 49-29 after a 2-point run from Davis.

And, again, Gainesville answered, this time via a 25-yard field goal from Turner for a 52-29 lead heading into the final 12 minutes. Turner tacked on a 26-yard kick with 9:35 to play for a 55-29 lead.

The Falcons were by no means finished, however, charging downfield for back-to-back touchdown drives, as McDonald came up with play after play -- he and Goss combining for touchdowns to pull the Falcons within 55-45 with 3:26 remaining.

But the Falcons could not recover back-to-back onside kicks, and, eventually, Gainesville’s defense came up with the killer play, as Byrd and Sosebee combined to give the Red Elephants the ball for good with 2:20 remaining.

“We knew Flowery Branch wouldn’t quit, and they really pushed us,” Watson said. “But this is so big for us. Now we can look at the ultimate goal of winning state.”

The defending Class AAAAA champs will open postseason play against M.L. King next Friday at City Park.

-- NOTE: The Gainesville community honored longtime sports writer and broadcaster Phil Jackson before the game, presenting the 83-year-old icon with a proclamation stating that it will name the media booth in the City Park press box after Jackson.

Flowery Branch....6....8....15...16 -- 45
Gainesville..........21...14....17....3 -- 55

First Quarter
FB -- McDonald 30 run (kick failed) 8:50, 6-0
GHS -- Gaudlock 9 pass from Watson (Turner kick) 6:50, 6-7
GHS -- Watson 6 run (Turner kick) 5:17, 6-14
GHS -- Newman 38 pass from Watson (Turner kick) 2:26, 6-21

Second Quarter
FB -- Davis 18 pass from McDonald (Thompson run) 10:11, 14-21
GHS -- Stringer 22 interception return (Turner kick) 6:05, 14-28
GHS -- Watson 36 run (Turner kick) 1:06, 35-14

Third Quarter
GHS -- Newman 64 pass from Watson (Turner kick) 10:47, 42-14
FB -- McDonald 2 run (Filson kick) 7:52, 42-21
GHS -- Ragland 29 pass from Watson (Turner kick) 7:21, 49-21
FB -- McDonald 3 run (Davis run) 4:38, 49-29
GHS -- Turner 25 field goal, 3:00, 52-29

Fourth Quarter
GHS -- Turner 26 field goal, 9:35, 55-29
FB -- Goss 4 run (Goss run) 7:04, 55-37
FB -- Davis 17 pass from McDonald (Goss run) 3:26, 55-45
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