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Posted: Friday, December 6th 2013 at 8:17pm

Gainesville excited to face top-ranked Tucker on the road (Video)

By Morgan Lee Editor
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Gainesville receiver Jay Gaudlock runs through a Mundy's Mill defender in last week's quarterfinal win in Gainesville. / photo: David Weikel
CLARKSTON – Gainesville has watched the film, heard the comparisons and knows the challenge ahead in tonight’s Class AAAAA semifinals.

The Red Elephants response? Bring it on.

Yes, Tucker is the closest thing Gainesville has faced to Buford since a 38-14 loss to the Wolves on Sept. 6, but the Red Elephants say they are a very different team now than the one that almost three months ago stumbled to its lowest scoring output since 2009 again Buford.

Besides, since when is defending a title supposed to be easy?

“They have great athletes on both sides and they’re very well coached,” Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson said of the Tigers. “It’s just something you have to do to get to a state championship. You have to beat the best to be the best, so, yeah, they’re kind of similar (to Buford), but, hey, you’ve just got to go in there and play.”

(To watch a video preview of Friday's Class AAAAA semifinal, simply click "play" in the box to the right.)

Gainesville plans on doing just that tonight in Clarkston’s Hallford Stadium (Click here for a map of Hallford Stadium), taking its high-flying offense -- averaging 49.3 points per game -- on the road to face a Tucker defense that is yielding an average of just 12.7 points and just nine through three playoff victories.

And despite the comparisons with Buford’s shutdown defense, Watson believes his team is up for the challenge.

“We’re better than we were back then (when Gainesville played Buford). It was our second week; we were still learning a lot about each other,” said Watson, who has keyed the attack with 3,560 yards passing, 1,016 yards rushing, 61 total touchdowns. “We’ve been getting better every week. And now we know everything about each other, so we’ve just got to get better and go out there and not make any mistakes.”

Certainly the third-ranked Red Elephants (12-1) know they cannot repeat the four-turnover performance that allowed Mundy’s Mill to pull within a touchdown during the third quarter of last week’s eventual 42-28 quarterfinal victory -- not against a defense that features a number of Football Bowl Subdivision recruits, including dominant defensive tackle Elisha Shaw (6-foot-6, 299 pounds), linebacker Detric Dukes (Georgia commit) and defensive backs Kirk Tucker (Stanford commit) and junior Duke Shelley (who holds an offer from Clemson).

Facing off against the top-ranked Tigers (13-0) will be a highly-talented group of skill position players, including receivers Jay Gaudlock (team-high 87 receptions, team-high 1,217 yards, 14 TDs), Rodney Lackey (50 receptions, 772 yards, 12 TDs), Chastin Newman (41 receptions, 741 yards, 8 TDs) and running back Michael Byrd (990 yards rushing, 563 yards receiving, 17 total TDs). And they are acutely aware of how thin the line between success and failure may be in the semifinals.

“Offensively, we’ve got to take care of the football,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “We can’t turn it over four times like we did last Friday night and win. I also think field position plays into it a little bit and our defense stopping their offense... There’s a lot of scenarios there. Can we move it on the top defense in the state? Can we stop their offense? There’s just a lot of things you throw into a hat and you pick one or two out and that might be the key, it might not be the key.

“But I think turnovers are the key for us.”

Gainesville’s defense will hope to force a few of their own takeaways on Friday, and the Red Elephants have done that throughout the campaign, coming up with 21 turnovers this season -- almost two per game. That includes the last four contests in which Gainesville claimed the Region 8-AAAAA title and three playoff wins thanks in large part to takeaways at ket moments in the contest.

“I think we’ve played great,” said Gainesville senior linebacker Devan Stringer, who has five interceptions and a fumble recovery. “I don’t think we’ve played perfect, definitely not as good as we’ve wanted to, but just to survive in the playoffs with the teams we’ve had come through I pat us on the back for that because it’s real tough playing defense when you have our offense that scores so fast and we’re back on the field. But we really pride ourselves on putting the team on our backs, and we know when we get to the playoffs it’s going to be on us to win.”

Gainesville’s defense will be tasked with slowing a Tucker offense that has run all over opponents this season.

Basing out of a wing-T, the Tigers use mis-direction and athleticism to victimize opposing defenses, led by quarterback Joseph Farrar. Tucker’s offense stormed through the regular season, averaging 45 points per game, and while that number has dropped to 26.6 through the playoffs, it has still been more than enough to lead the Tigers back into the semifinals for the fifth time in seven seasons (Tucker won the Class AAAA crown in 2008 and 2011).

“The biggest key I think for us is just to attack,” Stringer said. “They’re one of those teams -- I compare them to Buford -- that come out and smack you in the mouth. They’re going to see if you like it and see how you respond. I think we’ve got to be one of the defenses that take the fight to them first. We’ve never backed down from anyone. I’m not going to say it’s going to be easy. It’s definitely going to be ups and downs; we’re going to face adversity, but I think we can come together and take the fight to them. It’s going to be a dogfight, and we’re used to those.”

Gainesville’s players could care less how the game plays out -- they simply want a victory and a return to the Georgia Dome -- which would be their second and the program’s third in five seasons.

“We’re all focused on Tucker,” Stringer said. “And you know the seniors are hungry, you know the juniors are hungry, but when I look around at our younger teammates eyes they want it just as bad as we do. And that’s something we love to have on the sidelines.”

-- WHAT: Class AAAAA football semifinal
-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
-- WHERE: Hallford Memorial Stadium, Clarkston
-- RADIO: 1240 AM
-- GAINESVILLE (12-1, No. 1 seed Region 8-AAAAA): Defeated Mundy's Mill 42-28 in the quarterfinals
-- TUCKER (13-0, No. 1 seed Region 6-AAAAA): Defeated Ware County 29-0 in the quarterfinals
-- HISTORY: This is the first meeting between the two teams.
-- WINNER PLAYS: Kell vs. Creekside winner in the Class AAAAA title game at 8:30 p.m. Dec. 13 in the Georgia Dome
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