JOHNS CREEK — The Flowery Branch Falcons have a play that they have practiced every week which they call “Big Ben.” To others it’s called a Hail Mary.
That practice paid off Friday night.
“We’ve worked on that play every week for the last 10 years,” said Falcons coach Lee Shaw. “And we’ve been pulling off wins like this for the last five years.
“It’s Branch boy magic.”
Quarterback Kanler Coker threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Casey Osborne on the last play of the game to pull out a 41-38 win at Johns Creek in the first round of the Class AAAA state playoffs.
The Falcons will return home to host No. 4 seed Thomas County Central on Friday.
Coker didn’t see what happened to the ball after his throw.
“I just saw the ref signal the touchdown,” Coker said. “I knew we could pull it out somehow.”
Osborne had jumped up to catch the ball in the end zone in a sea of players. He fell, then caught the ball lying on his back.
So ended a high-flying shootout that pitted two 9-1 teams against each other.
The Gladiators, playing in their first ever playoff game, nearly had it won just 42 seconds earlier when kicker Kyle Fowler nailed a 30-yard field goal to put Johns Creek in the lead for the first time all night, 38-35.
Flowery Branch had 31 seconds to drive 91 yards for the winning score.
“It’s unbelievable,” Shaw said. “Talk about fighting to the very end.”
Coker ran out of bounds for 3 yards to start the drive.
With 22 seconds remaining, the senior fired first down passes along the sideline to Jeremy Haley for 26 yards, then Osborne for 13 and C.J. Curry for another 13 to the Johns Creek 36-yard line.
His final pass sailed into the right corner of the end zone, where Osborne kept the season alive.
“I was just running down the sideline and I saw the ball coming and I knew one of us was going to catch it,” Osborne said.
For a few seconds, the crowd was silent as the referees tried to determine what had happened. Then they signaled touchdown.
Osborne finished with a team-high 118 yards receiving on five catches and a score. Coker was 12-of-25 passing for 229 yards, two touchdowns receiving, another on the ground and two interceptions.
Haley added 18 carries for 98 yards and a touchdown.
Flowery Branch compiled 376 total yards of offense, while the Gladiators ground out 435 yards, 322 on the ground.
The Falcons’ defense added a pair of touchdowns on interception returns, an 85-yard return by Quinton Mayfield and a 35-yarder by Noel Padmore, which gave Flowery Branch its biggest lead of the night at 35-21.
From there it was the Johns Creek rushing attack, led by quarterback Skye Overton (three touchdowns and 101 yards rushing) and running back Chase Solomon (159 yard rushing, one score), that took the game over.
Overton injured himself early in the game, but came back after the half to very nearly lead his team to its first playoff win.
Johns Creek coach Mike Cloy had said before the contest that it was going to be quite a game, and both teams proved him right. Both offenses were nearly unstoppable for the most part — Flowery Branch punted twice and Johns Creek not at all — but both defenses also grabbed two interceptions each.
Through most of the first half, it looked like the defenses wouldn’t be much of a factor.
But the half ended with both teams trading interceptions, and Flowery Branch capitalized, as cornerback Mayfield intercepted Johns Creek backup quarterback John Grayson and returned it 85 yards for a touchdown and a 21-14 lead at the half.
Flowery Branch had just three offensive possessions in the first half, scoring on the first two.
Coker led the team 72 yards in under two minutes on a six-play drive. Osborne caught a pair of passes and then Curry, who sat out last week’s game with a leg injury, hauled in an 18-yard touchdown pass to put the visitors up 7-0 with 10:16 left in the first.
Johns Creek responded on its first possession, driving 73 yards and burning up nearly seven minutes off the clock. The Gladiators converted twice on third-and-long and once on fourth-and-1, and scored on a 1-yard run by Overton.
Flowery Branch responded with a 12-play drive, capped off by a 1-yard touchdown run by Haley.
Overton was hurt running on Johns Creek’s next possession, but junior Grayson led the team downfield to tie the score at 14-14 on a 20 yard pass to Bradon Fortin with 7:30 left in the half.
Flowery Branch looked to score on a third straight drive, but Gladiators linebacker Matt Gorst picked off Coker in Johns Creek territory.
The Gladiators couldn’t capitalize, with Grayson lofting a pass that Mayfield leaped up to grab at the Flowery Branch 15. Mayfield started upfield down the sideline and, with the help of a couple of big blocks, put the Falcons back ahead.
Johns Creek had two minutes to respond once more, but Fowler missed a 49-yard field goal try to short with two seconds left in the half.
For Flowery Branch, the road trip toward the Atlanta Dome has begun.
The last time the Falcons were a No. 3 seed entering the state playoffs was 2008, the year Flowery Branch advanced to the state championship game before falling 28-14 to Cairo.
That team was known as the Road Warriors, and the 2011 team has taken up the same mantle.
Last year the Falcons were the No. 2 seed out of Region 8-AAAA and reached the second round of the state playoffs. Like this season, the team started 9-0 before falling to Clarke Central in the regular season finale.