By Brian Jones
Gainesville has been known as a team that has a lot of success in the regular season, but can’t win the big game. That all changed Friday night as the Red Elephants took apart Ware County 49-13 in the Class AAAA Championship game at the Georgia Dome.
The Red Elephants started the scoring early when Deshaun Watson threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Caleb Hayman midway through the first quarter. They made it 14-0 four minutes later when Watson scored on a four-yard keeper.
But the play of the game came early in the second quarter when Gators Quan Bannaman fumbled the pass thrown by quarterback Jammar Johnson and it was recovered by Gainesville defensive back Fred Payne and returned 34 yards for a touchdown to put the Red Elephants up 21-0.
“Our defense has been the unsung hero all year,” Gainesville head coach Bruce Miller said. “They have stepped up and played well all year and have kept us in ball games.”
Payne would come up with another big defensive play later in the game when he picked off Johnson early in the third quarter and returned it 70 yards to the Gators’ one-yard line. That led to another Watson score and put the Red Elephants up 35-7 at that point in the ball game.
Watson has been the catalyst for the offense all year. In the first half of the Class AAAAA Championship game, he threw for 180 yards and two touchdowns to go along with his two rushing touchdowns to put the Red Elephants up 28-7. He would add one more rushing score in the third and one more passing touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“I could have played better,” Watson said talking about his performance. “But we came out with the 49-13 victory, so I can’t be mad at that. “
Ware County hung with Gainesville in the first half in terms of moving football. The Gators had 243 yards of offense while the Red Elephants had 256 and the Gators had 13 first downs while the Red Elephants had 11. But the two turnovers proved to be costly along with the third turnover to start the third quarter, and the Gators could never recover.
For Ware County, they finish with a 13-2 record and this was the first state title appearance for the Gators since 2007 when they fell to Northside-Warner Robins. This was also the first state title appearance for head coach Ed Dudley who reached the state semifinals twice as the head coach for Walton in 2004 and 2007.
Gainesville finishes the season with a 12-3 record, this is the first state title for the Red Elephants since 1925 and before this game they were 0-6 in state title games since 1960. Miller knew how important this game and this win was for the Gainesville community.
“Everybody that has ever been to Gainesville High School, this is for them,” Miller said. “I’m just so happy we could do it, and now I just want to do it again.”