When Harris County hosted Gainesville in the quarterfinals of the Class AAAAA playoffs two years ago, it was the case of a more established team led by a more established quarterback coming in and pushing the surprising upstarts around.
The 2012 Tigers had won eight games in a row, but ran into a buzz saw led by current Clemson freshman phenom Deshaun Watson. Gainesville won that game 64-13 en route to the state title.
Two years later as it prepares once again to host Gainesville, this time in the second round of the Class AAAAA playoffs, Harris County is at the peak of its three-year growth as a football program. In the midst of its most prosperous period in program history, the Tigers are once again trying to set a school record for wins in a season. They set a school record for consecutive wins with their ninth straight victory in the first round.
Quarterback TaQuon Marshall, who was playing receiver the last time the Red Elephants came to town, is leading one of the most prolific offenses in the state. Running back Tae Crowder is sniffing 1,500 yards and 25 touchdowns rushing for the season. They are two last-minute drives away from being undefeated, and they have a hunger to get revenge for the loss that ended their season two years ago.
“This is one of those revenge games,” Marshall said. “A couple years ago, that score was — it was a bad one. But we feel like we have the team this year to win. They aren’t the same team they were two years ago. They don’t have Deshaun Watson. That was a huge deal for them. We feel like we’re going to be more aggressive than they are and just play County football.”
It’s true Gainesville isn’t the same team it was over the past four seasons led by Watson, who before injury was one of the hottest quarterbacks in college football as a freshman this season. In his four seasons at Gainesville, Watson set nearly every major state passing record, including total passing yards (13,077) and touchdowns (155) to go along with his rushing totals of 4,057 yards and 63 touchdowns.
Now, the Red Elephants are led by Mikey Gonzalez, who lacks the fanfare but has still been effective. Gonzalez has completed 71 percent of his passes for 2,584 yards and 31 touchdowns this season, which will undoubtedly still put the onus on the Tigers passing defense.
“The defense is working hard,” Marshall said. “As an offense, we’re always trying to put a bunch of points on the board but i know that build a lot of confidence for the defense. This team is going to come in and pass the ball a lot. We’re not the strongest in pass coverage, but we’re working on improving and we have all the confidence in the word that the defense is going to step up and make plays this week.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of this rematch is that Harris County is no longer overmatched in experience. Marshall noted that nearly every player on the team has played meaningful snaps in playoff games. The second round is old hat, and they are poised to take the next step, he said.
“We’ve been here before,” Marshall said. “What we keep saying is that we’re trying to make history. We’re trying to get over that hump. Right now, we’re worried about getting past Gainesville and then going from there.”
Ultimately, the Tigers know it’s a game that could, like last week, come down to a final possession. It’s a situation they’ve found themselves in plenty of times this season. In the first two games of the season, they found themselves on the losing end. Last week, they came out on top when Easton Hart blocked a field goal with 13 seconds left to play.
If it comes down to who has the ball last, Marshall is confident in either case.
“Sometimes it is whoever has the ball last,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind having it in that situation, but I have the confidence in the defense that if we don’t have it at the end, they can step up and make the play to get us the win.”
Gainesville (9-2) has won at least 10 games in every season since 2008. It has allowed less than 20 points in seven of its 11 games this season. Harris County has scored at least 28 in every contest, including 40 or more in six.
A win would give the Tigers their second quarterfinals appearance in three years.