DANIELSVILLE — Flowery Branch answered a lot of questions on Friday with a 21-0 win over Madison County in its 8-AAAA debut and season opener.
Can the Falcons' defense, which surrendered points at will in some games last season, hold up on its end? They shut out the Red Raiders, held them to 49 rushing yards, recovered a fumble, intercepted a pass, forced nine punts and and a turnover on downs.
Can the Falcons' rushing game thrive without last year's leading rusher, Imani Cross? His replacement, junior Jeremy Haley, rushed for 139 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries, wearing down a Red Raiders (0-1, 0-1 Region 8-AAAA) defense that seemingly stayed on the field the entire game.
Most importantly, can the Falcons (1-0, 1-0) compete in a new region and classifcation after enjoying success in Region 7B-AAA?
"Our guys had something to prove," Falcons coach Lee Shaw said. "This is what we wanted to do. We wanted to try and make a statement that we do play good football. We respect this region, we just want to get some respect. Hopefully, we did that a little bit tonight."
Both teams started out sluggish, with the Falcons going three-and-out their first possession, punting on their next and turning the ball over on downs on their third.
The Red Raiders went three-and-out their first two possessions and lost a fumble on a handoff on their third.
Flowery Branch finally broke the scoring seal at the 8:11 mark of the second quarter with a 12-play, 70-yard drive that lasted a little more than three minutes. The drive was capped by quarterback Austin Brown's 1-yard run. Five plays earlier he botched a snap and turned a sure 5-yard loss into a 19-yard gain by running around the defense and down the sideline.
The touchdown and Will Monday's extra point put Flowery Branch up 7-0, where the score remained through halftime.
Brown finished with 29 rushing yards on 10 carries — he was sacked and tackled for a loss on numerous plays — and completed 8 of his 21 passes, though his receivers dropped two sure completions.
The Falcons held Madison County to a three-and-out on its next possession, but fumbled the punt return, where the Red Raiders recovered on the Flowery Branch 45. But the defense responded by forcing another three-and-out, stuffing the run as it did the entire game.
"We just came in and hit adversity in the mouth and took it to them," said sophomore linebacker Jacob Allen, who recovered Madison County's fumble, had two sacks and two tackles for a loss.
The Falcons began to pick up steam in the second half with the defense continuing to shut down the run and with the foot of Monday. He kicked a pair of 27-yard field goals on consecutive possessions in the third quarter to put the Falcons up 13-0.
He also controlled the Red Raiders' field position with three kickoffs into the end zone and three of his five punts going 50, 47 and 40 yards.
"That's why he's going to college," said Shaw of Monday, who is committed to Duke.
After Monday's second field goal, the Red Raiders went to the passing game, which didn't work either. Defensive back Matt Tiller, who batted down a pass to the end zone at the end of the first half, intercepted Madison County's Alex Jordan with 3 seconds remaining in the third. He returned the pick to the Red Raiders 26.
The Falcons put the game away on their next possession, a four-play drive that lasted less than two minutes, highlighted by a 24-yard Haley run that put them on the 1.
"I just had something to prove tonight because everyone was looking at Imani and what he could do," Haley said. "I just had to get the opportunity and do something with it."