FLOWERY BRANCH — It was an unusual Friday night in which Flowery Branch and quarterback Austin Brown struggled in the passing game.
But a big defensive play from Jacob Matthes at the start of the third quarter and a bruising run game from Jeremy Haley in the second half helped the Falcons to a 31-7 win over Heritage at Falcon Field.
The win pushed the Falcons — who have yet to have an opponent come within 14 points — to 7-0 in Region 8-AAAA, while the Patriots fells to 5-3.
Brown completed just 14 of his 24 passes, and his second quarter lateral to receiver Casey Osborne was fumbled, recovered by the Patriots and returned for Heritage's only touchdown. That prevented what would have been the Falcons' fourth shutout of the season.
With the score 17-7 at halftime, Matthes forced a fumble in the backfield during a handoff on the second half's first play from scrimmage and returned it 18 yards for a touchdown.
"I slanted past the center, was looking around, saw (the quarterback) hand it off and I went in for the tackle, but all I got was the ball," said Matthes, a junior lineman. "I stripped it out, it hit the ground and didn't move, so I picked it up and ran it in for a touchdown."
Matthes said the score was his first taste of the end zone at any level of football.
With the Falcons' offense lacking rhythm, it turned to Haley, who melted the clock in the second half by carrying the ball 11 times for 89 yards. He scored on a 31-yard touchdown run at the end of the third quarter that brought the score to its final margin.
Haley finished with 144 rushing yards on 19 carries.
"At the beginning we came out kind of flat-footed," the junior running back said. "But then we started picking it up. It was all because of the line."
Two of the Falcons' first three possessions ended in three-and-out punts, and Brown started the game 4-of-9 passing.
With 5:59 remaining in the first half, Osborne's fumble was recovered by linebacker Toby Brotherton. Players from both Flowery Branch and Heritage assumed an incomplete pass, and even Brotherton hesitated before running 20 yards to the end zone.
While the Patriots' special teams unit took the field for the extra point, Falcons coach Lee Shaw argued for a dead play from the sidelines.
"We were hoping to get that shutout," Falcons coach Lee Shaw said. "I don't know if the pass was backward or what, but we didn't execute like we should have, so that's the offense's fault.
"But I thought our defense played really well."
The Falcons responded quickly on their next possession, beginning with favorable field position on the 50-yard line. After Haley runs of 17 and 11 yards, Brown heaved a 22-yard touchdown pass to Logan Conley, bringing the score to 17-7 with 4:54 remaining in the half.
Despite his struggles, Brown finished the game with 177 passing yards. He also rushed for a 1-yard touchdown earlier in the second quarter.
Heritage started the second half with the ball, but Matthes' play spoiled any hopes the Patriots had of launching a comeback.
"That really shifted momentum to their side for good," Patriots coach Chad Frazier said. "It deflated us morally."
Despite the lackluster offensive effort, Shaw feels good about the Falcons heading into next week's road game against Loganville.
"I think we still have momentum," he said. "We're 7-0. If you can't have momentum after 7-0, you're probably in trouble.
"This group will respond and we'll execute next week."
Conley led the Falcons with three catches and 68 yards, followed by Osborne (5-57) and tight end Byron Keith (5-45). Will Monday kicked a 21-yard field goal to put the game's first points on the board and added four touchbacks on kickoffs.
The Patriots, who managed just 162 yards of offense, were led by Quami Stanley's 40 rushing yards on 19 carries. They attempted just four passes, completing two - one a 24-yard completion on a fake punt.