Clarke Central 38, Flowery Branch 35
Difference maker: Clarke Central running back Quenshaun Watson ran for four touchdowns, including three in the second half, and 285 yards on 27 carries.
Stat that matters: Four turnovers for the Falcons, including three interceptions and a lost fumble.
Turning point: Dreko Statham had two picks for the Gladiators, but it was Jaymel Israel's interception with 1:25 left in the fourth that sealed the win.
Who's next: Both teams will advance to the playoffs to play teams from Region 7-AAAA; a drawing at 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning will determine seeding.
ATHENS — The Flowery Branch Falcons walked on to the field at Billy Henderson Stadium Friday night knowing exactly what they had to do to secure the program's first region title and a No. 1 seed heading into the state playoffs.
They walked off not knowing whether they would get that first title or even start the playoffs at home.
In a wild game, Clarke Central eked out a 38-35 win to force a three-way tie along with Heritage for the top spot in Region 8-AAAA.
Heritage (9-1) drew the top seed out of a hat in accordance with Region 8-AAAA tiebreaker rules this morning at Loganville High. The Gladiators were slotted as the No. 2 seed and the Falcons took third.
Flowery Branch will travel to Region 7-AAAA No. 2 seed Johns Creek (9-1) on Friday, Nov. 11 to open the state playoffs. The Johns Creek Gladiators lost only to Chattahoochee (19-16 in overtime) in the regular season, compiling 32 points scored per game and allowing an average of 11 points per game on defense.
It certainly wasn't the way Flowery Branch coach Lee Shaw wanted to see the regular season end.
"We had too many turnovers on our part and we dropped some crucial balls," Shaw said. "Good thing it's not over for us, but this one hurts."
The Gladiators' secondary caused much of the pain, grabbing three interceptions on the night, including one with 1:25 left to seal the win.
Besides the three interceptions, Falcons quarterback Kanler Coker also had three touchdowns on 19-of-30 passing for 193 yards, playing without top receiving threat C.J. Curry, who sat out with a leg injury.
Senior receiver Casey Osborne led the way in his absence with eight receptions for 80 yards and a touchdown.
Clarke Central running back Quenshaun Watson did the rest of the damage, running for four touchdowns and 285 yards on 27 carries.
His final touchdown, with 2:15 left in the game, proved to be the winning score.
Just before his 60-yard sprint to the end zone, the momentum had shifted to Flowery Branch, which had come back from a 10-point deficit to take a 35-31 lead when linebacker Quinncy Hodges picked off a pass from Gladiators quarterback Cameron Johnson at the Clarke Central 20-yard-line and ran it in for the score with 3:27 left in the game.
Clarke Central needed just four plays to quell the Flowery Branch comeback, springing Watson free down the left sideline.
In the end, it may not have looked much like last year's matchup, won 21-0 by Clarke Central, but once again the Falcons were stopped one game short of claiming their first region title, at least for now.
"I'm so proud of these guys," Clarke Central coach Leroy Ryals said.
The defending region champs were able to defend their title for at least one more day. Clarke Central did it by rallying from a 14-point deficit in the second quarter and a 21-17 deficit at the half.
The Gladiators scored 24 unanswered points to turn the game around, in the process putting Flowery Branch behind on the scoreboard for the first time all season.
It was a wild finish after a steady first half.
Flowery Branch built a 21-7 lead to the 5:43 point in the second quarter. Clarke Central responded with the final 10 points of the half to cut the Falcons lead to 21-17 at the break.
Coker finished the half 9-of-15 passing for 122 yards and two touchdowns, but also threw an interception on his last pass of the half, only his third pick of the year. Osborne was his favorite target in the half with five catches and 56 yards receiving.
Jeremy Haley added 52 yards rushing and a score in the first half for Flowery Branch.
Johnson finished 3-of-5 passing for 128 yards, including a 78-yard touchdown pass to Torey Gartrell to cut the Falcons lead to 21-14.
Johnson then led his team 57 yards in less than 40 seconds to set up Noah Welch for a 26-yard field goal at the halftime buzzer.
The Falcons built their lead on a balanced attack, driving downfield on their second possession of the game to set up a 9-yard touchdown run by Haley.
After both teams traded punts, Clarke Central evened the score on a 17-yard run by Watson.
On Flowery Branch's next possession Coker found Osborne in the corner of the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown.
The Falcons went up 21-7 by taking advantage of a Johnson sack and fumble that Flowery Branch recovered on the Clarke Central 35-yard line. Coker found Jamaad Stephens on a slant route for a 19-yard touchdown.