MARIETTA -- In a game that produced 103 points and 840 yards it was perhaps two defensive plays that made the biggest difference.
Gainesville defensive backs TK Mize and Fred Payne each picked off Kell passes on Friday, Mize returning his for a score and Payne setting up a short touchdown drive that helped the Red Elephants fight off the Longhorns 61-42 in the second round of the Class AAAAA playoffs in Marietta.
The takeaways proved part of a storming second half performance for Gainesville, which allowed just 68 yards passing after the interval while outscoring Kell 40-7 to move into the Class AAAAA quarterfinals. The Red Elephants (9-3) will travel to take on Harris County next Friday.
"If you like entertaining football this one was for you," said Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller, who coached his program to a fifth straight quarterfinal berth and first in Class AAAAA. "Our kids played great in the second half. And it was our kids who came in at halftime and were saying, 'we're not out of this thing. We can score with them. We just need a few stops.' And then we came up with those huge interceptions."
Mize's pick came near midfield and gave the Red Elephants a two possession lead for the first time during the contest, 54-42. Payne got in on the act on the very next Longhorns drive, snagging a Kell (10-2) pass and returning it to the Longhorns 12. Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson scored three plays later for the 61-42 lead. The three-yard touchdown run was part of another stellar night for the junior signal caller.
Watson finished with eight touchdowns on the night, including five rushing scores, as he rolled up 370 of Gainesville's 448 total yards -- Watson was 24 of 33 through the air for 212 yards and three scores, while rushing 29 times for 158 yards (115 of that in the second half). He now has 61 touchdowns on the season. Rodney lackey led all Red Elephants receivers with nine catches for 53 yards, while Hayman hauled in four passes for 62 yards.
Watson helped spark the second-half fightback, hitting running back Michael Byrd (12 rushes, 58 yards; 3 catches, 34 yards) for a 26-yard score at the start of the third quarter to pull within 35-28. Watson then rushed for back-to-back touchdowns to give Gainesville its first lead of the second half at 42-35.
Kell quarterback Matthew McGuigan answered with a 59-yard strike to Brendan Langley -- who torched Gainesville for 167 yards receiving and four scores -- but it was one of the few successes of the half for McGuigan, who finished 13 of 22 with 332 yards six touchdown passes and two interceptions. McGuigan managed just 68 yards and one scoring strike after the interval, with both picks coming over the final 24 minutes.
"Our defensive coaches did a great job adjusting to their quarterback and passing game," Miller said. "We started getting some pressure on him and that made all the difference in the world."
McGuigan finished with minus-14 yards rushing as part of Kell's 392 total yards.
Gainesville tried to keep pace with the Longhorns early, as Watson hit Tray Harrison for a four-yard score and Caleb Hayman for a 12-yard touchdown pass, as well as rushing seven yards for a touchdown. But McGuigan and Langley hooked up for three touchdown passes, and McGuigan also tossed scoring strikes to Michael Valero (68 yards) and Julian Burris (34 yards) for a 35-21 halftime lead.
It wouldn't last long, however, as the Red Elephants stomped to their first road playoff win since 2004.
Gainesville will travel again next week, trekking to Harris County in Hamilton.
"We're in the final eight, and we're excited about what can happen from here," Miller said. "I can guarantee our kids will practice hard this week. I just hope we get off the bus ready to go."