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