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Tuesday May 24th, 2016 9:46PM

Gainesville defense, special teams help clear way to second round

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GAINESVILLE -- For all the talk of Gainesville's offensive prowess, the Red Elephants can make just as many plays on defense and special teams -- and they picked a good time to prove it.

Gainesville returned an interception for a score and blocked a punt to set up another, as the Red Elephants fought past M.L. King 28-14 in the first round of the Class AAAAA playoffs on Friday at City Park.

The big plays helped offset M.L. King's 422 total yards -- outgaining Gainesville by 211 -- and helped the Red Elephants march on to the second round of the postseason for the sixth straight year -- where they will face South Paulding.

"At this point, it's not how you win or how much you win by or whatever, it's just survive and go on to the next round, and we did what we had to do," Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. "Our defense played super... two goal-line stands, two interceptions... They just played their fannies off."

The Red Elephants (10-1) set the tone from the start, halting the Lions on fourth and goal from the Gainesville 1-yard line. And even though M.L. King rolled up some impressive yardage stats -- including 269 yards passing -- the Red Elephants kept the Lions scoreless through three quarters as they built a 28-0 advantage.

The defense also started the scoring for the defending Class AAAAA champs, as Devan Stringer picked off a Lions pass and sprinted 55 yards for a 7-0 lead with 8:23 left in the first half. Brenton Merritt also got a pick in the third quarter to set up a 29-yard scoring run from Deshaun Watson and a 28-0 lead.

Watson battled through one of his lowest-ever passing totals at Gainesville, managing just 20 yards on four completions, by making up for it with his legs and hands. The senior rushed for a game-high 159 yards and two scores, while also catching a four-yard scoring pass from Mikey Gonzalez.

"Offensively, I think the weather kinda' got in our heads a little bit," Miller said. "We just weren't making a lot of plays... Thank goodness Deshaun can run."

Watson's first touchdown plunge came after Gainesville's Colton Quinones blocked an M.L. King punt late in the second quarter. Gonzalez then came in and drilled Watson after the starting quarterback drifted out of the backfield on a trick play that helped the Red Elephants to a 21-0 lead at the half.

The Red Elephants produced another goal line stand to start the second half before pulling ahead 28-0.

Yet M.L. King finally broke through after a Red Elephants fumble, scoring its first touchdown with 10:59 remaining. The Lions then made it 28-14 with 8:13 remaining, but Gainesville coped with the push. An illegal touching penalty finally ended M.L. King's threat as time drained away.

The Red Elephants will stay at home for the second round, taking on a South Paulding team that beat Sequoyah 48-21 in the first round.

-- Bryan Pirkle contributed to this report
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