GAINESVILLE -- For all of Gainesville's precision and explosiveness, the Red Elephants have more than their share of grit and determination.
Just ask Mundy's Mill.
The Tigers fought the Red Elephants from start to finish on Friday, coming up with four fumbles and actually outgaining Gainesville by four yards -- but it was nowhere near enough to derail the defending champs, as the Red Elephants pulled away for a 42-28 victory in the Class AAAAA quarterfinals.
"Somebody once told you'll have playoff games like this where you don't play well at all times, but if you can find ways to win these, it can mean big things for you," Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said.
One of those big things is now on the horizon, as the win cemented Gainesville's third straight state semifinal appearance, where the Red Elephants will face Tucker -- location still to be determined pending a coin flip on Saturday morning.
Regardless of that outcome Gainesville (12-1) will be heartened by their ability to gut out games like Friday's.
The Red Elephants yielded 388 yards -- including 213 yards rushing for Mundy's Mill running back Rodney Smith -- but never buckled, coming up with answers each time the Tigers (8-5) turned up the pressure.
Perhaps the most impressive response came in a wild third quarter that saw as many turnovers -- three -- as touchdowns. Gainesville provided two of the giveaways, twice fumbling to Mundy's Mill. The Tigers turned the first into a touchdown to pull within 28-21 midway through the quarter, but JD Sosebee nullified the second when the Red Elephants linebacker pounced on a fumbled handoff at his own 36.
Gainesville made the most of the takeaway, as Deshaun Watson found Michael Byrd for a 10-yard touchdown pass and a 35-21 lead that yielded some much-needed breathing room.
"That fumble was huge; it really changed the momentum of the game," Red Elephants senior linebacker Devan Stringer said. "They had scored and had everything going their way, but we wouldn't let them hold on to it."
While Watson was far from his best, the quarterback still had more than enough for the Tigers, racking up six touchdowns and 331 total yards -- including 22 of 29 passing for 277 yards. The senior also battled an injury to his left (non-throwing) shoulder -- though you would have never known it on his final score of the night, as Watson launched himself from the 5-yard line into the end zone, taking two hits along the way that saw the dual-threat resembling a helicopter blade as he landed.
"I just remember taking off; I was determined to get in," Watson said. "I closed my eyes and felt the hits, but I was just focusing on scoring."
Watson added that he was not hampered by the shoulder.
"There's a little pain here and there, but you don't worry about it when you're out on the field," he said.
Watson's three second half touchdowns -- including the pass to Byrd (53 yards rushing; five catches, 52 yards and two scores) and a 30-yard strike to Rodney Lackey -- proved painful for Mundy's Mill, who could not catch up, despite going away from their dominating ground game and hitting two touchdown passes.
"We knew Mundy's Mill was going to come and compete; we expected a tough game," Watson said. "We just have a lot of guts and a lot of faith."
Gainesville's defense displayed those guts on the opening drive, turning back an impressive opening drive from Mundy's Mill, as Smith guided the Tigers on an 18-play drive that took 8 minutes and 34 seconds off the clock. Yet Gainesville's defense found its feet inside its own 20 and forced a turnover on downs at the 18.
The Red Elephants offense rode the spark to a 7-0 lead when Watson hit Byrd in the flat for a 24-yard touchdown with 2:16 left in the quarter.
Warmed up from Mundy's Mill's opening possession, Smith responded immediately, ripping off a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage, knotting the score at 7-7.
"He was as advertised," Stringer said of Smith, who rushed for 168 yards in the first half but just 45 after the interval. "After that one big run, we really did a pretty good job hemming him up."
Despite the quick scores neither offense found a higher gear until just before halftime.
Gainesville fumbled the ball away near midfield, only for its defense to force another turnover on downs. The two teams then traded punts before Watson connected with Jay Gaudlock (six catches, 68 yards) -- who adjusted mid-back-pedal to haul in a 27-yard toss that gave the Red Elephants a 14-7 advantage with 7:23 left in the second quarter.
Again Mundy's Mill responded, however, and again it was Smith doing the heavy work, capping an 80-yard drive with a six-yard plunge to haul the Tigers even at 14-14. Yet the score gave the Red Elephants more than enough time to fashion their own response, and Watson did just that, lunging in from a yard to give Gainesville a 21-14 halftime advantage.
The Red Elephants looked set to pull away in the third quarter, Watson finding Lackey for a 30-yard score and a 28-14 lead. But the turnovers helped keep the Tigers close until late in the third quarter. And Watson's spectacular 360 in the fourth quarter helped the Red Elephants seal their third straight semifinal trip -- a feat not equaled since 1981-83.
"That's huge for us; we all talked about as eighth graders wanting to leave a legacy, and we're doing that," Stringer said.
Mundy's Mill....7....7....7....7 -- 28
Gainesville......7...14...14....7 -- 42
GHS -- Byrd 24 pass from Watson (Turner kick) 2:16, 7-0
MM -- Smith 75 run (Kempson kick) 1:51, 7-7
GHS -- Gaudlock 27 pass from Watson (Turner kick) 7:23, 14-7
MM -- Smith 6 run (Griffin kick) 2:51, 14-14
GHS -- Watson 1 run (Turner kick) 1:08, 21-14
GHS -- Lackey 30 pass from Watson (Turner kick) 10:59, 28-14
MM -- Tate 33 pass from Gates (Griffin kick) 6:34, 28-21
GHS -- Byrd 10 pass from Watson (Turner kick) 1:43, 35-21
GHS -- Watson 12 run (Turner kick) 5:48, 42-21
MM -- Kempson 15 pass from Gates (Griffin kick) 3:26, 42-28