Saturday May 28th, 2016 12:25AM

Gainesville anticipating much tougher test this week in Athens (Video)

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
Deshaun Watson grinned, the glimmer in his eye unmistakable -- he and his teammates are aching to see just how much they have grown this season.

Tonight, the Red Elephants will get that opportunity.

Gainesville has not had much of a chance to measure itself since Region 8-AAAAA play began, towering over its past five foes by an average score of 55-5. The Red Elephants expect that all to change thanks to a road trip to Athens to face Clarke Central.

"I like tests like this, going on the road in a hostile environment," Watson said. "That's why you play the game."

(NOTE: To watch a video preview of the contest, simply click "play" in the box to the right.)

Teammate Devan Stringer agreed, the same gritty anticipation hanging on his words.

"It's always good when you can win games by the margin we have, but it's always nice to see where your team is against a good team," Stringer said. "It kind of gets old to hear people say anybody can beat Salem, or anybody can beat Heritage. We want to a face a good team to let people know we're not just beating bad teams and we can play with the best of them."

Gainesville's coaches are also anticipating a quality contest, though that expectation is laced with plenty of caution thanks to the Gladiators' abilities.

"The thing that concerns me is their overall quickness. They match up great with us with their quickness," Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. "They look to be very well coached, and they seem to make very few mistakes. I'm concerned. We've got to go to Death Valley to play. That's never a fun place to play in. But it's a huge ball game for the region's sake, and it's a huge ball game for us."

As two of the three undefeated teams in 8-AAAAA, along with Flowery Branch, the winner of Friday's contest will have one foot in a de facto region title showdown with the Falcons over the coming weeks (Clarke Central travels to play Flowery Branch on Oct. 25, while Gainesville plays host to the Falcons on Nov. 8 in the regular season finale).

Fourth-ranked Gainesville could care less about speculation, however. The Red Elephants (6-1, 5-0 Region 8-AAAAA) are much more concerned with finding a way past a Gladiators team that will be able to match the defending state champs' athleticism.

Offensively, Clarke Central (5-1, 4-0) features a balanced attack that relies on a dual threat quarterback in Cameron Johnson and a breakaway threat at running back in Jaqua Daniels -- who scored s school record five touchdowns rushing in a 43-19 defeat of Apalachee on Sept. 27. The Gladiators are scoring 30.1 points per game and will face a Gainesville defense that is allowing 13.2 per contest -- though just 5.4 in region play and not more than eight points since a 38-14 loss to Buford on Sept. 6.

"I have been so impressed with our defense," Miller said. "We gave up 28 points in the (season-opening) West Forsyth game and 38 in the Buford game, and then all of a sudden we have been playing lights out the last five weeks. They've gotten better and better and better over there, and we probably should have two more shutouts. I just hope we can play good this week, because (the Gladiators) have got a lot of speed, and if you let them get in the open, it's over."

You can expect similar sentiments in Clarke Central's defensive meetings when discussing the Gainesville offense.

The Red Elephants are averaging 49.4 points per game but haven't been held to fewer than 48 in region play, and no defense outside of Buford's dominant group -- which has yielded just 27 points in six games -- has limited Gainesville's spread attack, which is putting up an average of 525 yards per contest.

"We're playing very well," said Watson, who currently leads the state with 2,120 yards passing and 26 touchdowns against just three interceptions. "Everyone is doing their job and not worrying about anyone else's. We're spreading the ball and having fun. We haven't played a full game in region play so far, so who knows what's going to happen if we play a full game?"

The Clemson-bound senior -- who is now at 11,480 career passing yards -- is completing 72 percent of his passes and doing it to a number of receivers, including Jay Gaudlock (team-high 52 catches for 774 yards, 8 TDs), Rodney Lackey (33 catches, 528 yards, 8 TDs) and Chastin Newman (24 catches, 314 yards, 4 TDs). Running back Michael Byrd has also proven a game-changer on the ground and as a receiver, rushing 71 times for 556 yards and 9 TDs and catching 40 passes for 375 yards and a TD.

As well as the Red Elephants have played, however, Miller warns that can all change with one off night.

"In our offense, because we do throw the ball so much, we can't have dropped passes," Miller said. "Dropped passes just kill this offense."

With that in mind, Watson expects the Gladiators, who are allowing 15.8 points per game, to do their best to confound the Red Elephants and bring multiple blitzes from different angles.

"I expect pressure, disguising coverages, and trying to confuse the whole offense and the coaching staff," Watson said, "trying to make us make mistakes and be uncomfortable with ourselves."

It has not happened often this season, but if it does tonight Watson says he and his teammates are capable of accepting the challenge -- in fact the quarterback says that's when he is at his best.

"We've been situations like this, look at last year in the playoffs," Watson said. "We've just got to go in there, and if the game is close that just makes it even better. I get even more comfortable when the game is close."

-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m.
-- WHERE: Death Valley Field, Athens
-- RADIO: 1240 AM
-- GAINESVILLE (6-1, 5-0 Region 8-AAAAA): Defeated Salem 58-8 last week. The Red Elephants are ranked No. 4 in Class AAAAA.
-- CLARKE CENTRAL (5-1, 4-0 Region 8-AAAAA): Defeated Heritage, Conyers 23-3 last week.
-- HISTORY: Gainesville won the last meeting 49-28 in 2012. The Red Elephants lead the series 5-2.
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