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Flowery Branch ousted by Stephenson, 27-7

Falcons suffer early exit from playoffs at home for 2nd straight year

POSTED: November 15, 2013 11:23 p.m.
JARED PUTNAM/The Times

Flowery Branch quarterback Jackson McDonald scrambles away from Stephenson's Treikell Jones on Friday during the opening round of the Class AAAAA playoffs in Flowery Branch.

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For the second straight year, homefield advantage and a higher seeding didn’t provide any help for Flowery Branch.

A rugged defensive battle Friday night saw the Falcons’ season come to an end at home in the first round of state playoffs, as visiting Stephenson rolled to a 27-7 victory.

The third-seeded Jaguars held Flowery Branch (7-4) scoreless until late in the fourth quarter, keeping the Falcons’ offense uncomfortable for the majority of the night and forcing three turnovers.

“They obviously executed better,” Flowery Branch coach Chris Griffin said. “They didn’t make the mistakes we made.”

The Falcons, who have made the playoffs nine years in a row, suffered back-to-back first-round losses for the first time in school history. Both have been at home; last year, they were upset by North Paulding in the first round despite being a No. 1 seed.

A wet field from Friday evening’s rain didn’t help their cause, hampering their passing game that has made their spread offense so successful throughout the season. They finished the game with just 182 yards.

“I don’t know if we played in wet conditions this year,” Griffin said. “We haven’t had many practices in it, but they have to play through it too because they played in the same weather. Obviously, we didn’t respond.”

Flowery Branch trailed 17-0 at halftime. The Falcons didn’t score until 2:22 mark of the fourth quarter, when Jackson McDonald completed an 18-yard touchdown pass to Justin Thomson in the corner of the end zone.

Despite the offensive issues, Flowery Branch was relatively stout on defense, allowing just 188 yards to a Stephenson team with 10 Division-I commits that was two single-digit losses away from being undefeated and winning a region title during the regular season.

“I was proud of them — they play hard,” Griffin said. “We had some tackling issues, but for the most part were spot on.”

But the Jaguars (9-2) made their scoring opportunities count, and got a little help from defense and special teams as well. Khalil Ladler intercepted a McDonald pass and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown to close out the first quarter. Kicker Wisdom Nzidee made field goals from 37 and 25 yards.

Stephenson, based in Stone Mountain, visits North Paulding in the second round next Friday.

“We weren’t looking for a statement, we just wanted to play our brand of football,” Jaguars coach Ron Gartrell said. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from, you have to play people. This is the first step for us, and we’ll go back to work on Monday. We’ll be serious about the next one.”

Dallas Rivers led the Stephenson offense with 73 carries and a pair of touchdowns on 13 carries. The Vanderbilt commit unleashed a 38-yard run on the Jaguars’ second drive of the game in the first quarter, setting up Nzidee’s first field goal five plays later to give his team an 3-0 lead with four minutes left in the first quarter.

Stephenson closed out the first quarter with Ladler’s interception for a touchdown to take a 10-0 lead. McDonald threw another pick to Cameron Glenn on the ensuing Flowery Branch drive, which turned into a missed 45-yard attempt by Nzidee.

The Jaguars made up for it on their next possession, taking advantage of a bad Falcons punt to set up their offense on the Flowery Branch 24-yard line. Rivers shook off a slew of defenders and slipped out of a defender’s hands to scamper into the end zone and give his team a 17-0 lead with 6:24 left in the first half.

Rivers scored his second touchdown midway through the third quarter on an 8-yard carry to put Stephenson up 24-0. Ladler set up the play with a 45-yard punt return.

Nzidee hit his second field goal on the opening drive of the fourth quarter to conclude the Jaguars’ scoring.

Flowery Branch coughed up a fumble on the next drive, but then backed Stephenson up to its own 10-yard line and forced a fumble. The Jaguars recovered the fumble on the 2, narrowly escaping a potential Falcons score.

Flowery Branch scored on its next possession, with McDonald completing a 23-yard pass to Brett Shepherd before the touchdown pass to Thomson.

McDonald was 17 of 34 for 173 yards in his final high school game. Usually a threat on his feet as well, the Jaguars kept him in the backfield for minus-30 yards.

“We expected a very physical game out of both teams,” Gartrell said. “Our kids played real hard and did the things they needed to do to win the football game.”



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