FLOWERY BRANCH — Flowery Branch has made a habit out of second-half comebacks this season.
Friday night at Falcon Field, Flowery Branch took its first lead with 4 minutes remaining, stopped a Gainesville 2-point conversion and then a last-minute drive to secure a 35-34 win, and with it, the program’s first outright region title and first No. 1 seed entering the playoffs.
The Falcons (8-2, 8-0 Region 8-AAAAA) will play North Paulding at 7:30 p.m. next Friday in Flowery Branch in the first round. Gainesville (7-3, 6-2) will play Rome at City Park Stadium.
“We just seem to play better when the game’s on the line,” said first-year Falcons coach Chris Griffin. “Our guys don’t panic, and they fight back when things are tough.”
Flowery Branch quarterback Jackson McDonald finished 21-for-29 passing for 264 yards and two touchdowns, along with 21 carries for 86 yards rushing and two more scores. He found Jamaad Stephens (seven catches for 137 yards) from 20 yards out to cap a 95-yard drive and complete a 21-0 run in the second half and go ahead 35-28 with four minutes remaining.
Gainesville needed just under two minutes to go 74 yards the other way, with Deshaun Watson (17-of-36 for 222 yards passing, 18 carries for 103 yards, one catch for two yards and four total touchdowns) delivering an over-the-shoulder pass to Rodney Lackey for a 19-yard touchdown strike.
Watson was shaken up on the play, but the Red Elephants ran back out for a two-point conversion attempt. Flowery Branch took a timeout to prepare, and the Falcons’ defense dragged down Watson behind the line after he had taken a handoff from backup Mikey Gonzalez and looked to pass.
“The momentum had switched, and I wished we could have run it right then — I think we had a good chance — and then they called timeout,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said of his decision to go for it. “We have to just get over it and get going, ain’t got time when you hit the playoffs to feel sorry for yourselves.”
The loss broke a string of four consecutive region titles for the Red Elephants. Along with the loss to Loganville the week before, it gives them a two-game losing streak for the first time since 2007, when they lost three straight.
It’s Flowery Branch’s first win in the series, which is now 7-3 in Gainesville’s favor, since the Falcons won two straight in 2006-2007.
And after two consecutive seasons of losing the final game of the regular season to fall short of an outright region title, Flowery Branch finally came through.
“It’s good to get the big win,” Griffin said. “It seems like every year we’ve won all but the big one, and now we won the big one.”
Gainesville was up 14 points at the half and up 14 again with 6:10 left in the third quarter after Watson ran 18 yards down the left sideline for a score.
McDonald finished Flowery Branch’s next drive with a 2-yard run to get the hosts back within a score. Falcons linebacker Jacob Allen then jumped on a Gainesville fumble on the next possession deep in Red Elephants’ territory. The Falcons converted a fourth-and-1 on the way to a tying touchdown on a 6-yard run by Justin Curry (27 carries for 94 yards.
The Flowery Branch defense then forced a punt, and the offense used up nearly 4:30 before Stephens caught McDonald’s second touchdown pass to go ahead.
“He played like he always plays,” Justin Curry said of McDonald, who was awarded the Great American Rivalry MVP award. “He’s the QB, the leader of our team, and he carried us.”
Both teams came in to the game with high-powered offenses, but it was defense that led the way in the opening quarter, the only points scored by Gainesville’s defense.
Flowery Branch’s defense was the more dominant early, however, three consecutive three-and-outs to open the game.
The Falcons moved the ball on each of their first two drives, the first ending in a punt and the second when Justin Curry came up 1-yard short on fourth-and-2 from the Gainesville 9.
The Gainesville defense didn’t let the Falcons’ third possession go anywhere. The snap was high on the first play of the drive from the Flowery Branch 40, and Gainesville linebacker Brenquez Dukes recovered the ball on the fly after it ricocheted off McDonald’s hands. He ran 37 yards for the game’s first touchdown with 1:43 remaining in the opening quarter.
It was the Gainesville offense’s turn next. Watson capped a five-play, 63-yard drive with a 22-yard pass between two defenders and into the hands of Jay Gaudlock for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead with 10:44 in the second quarter.
The Falcons responded, embarking on a 14-play, 69-yard drive. Gainesville nearly came up with a second red zone stop, but McDonald, back at the 5-yard line after a false start penalty pushed him back from the 1, rolled right and found Cameron Davis for the touchdown pass with 5:47 left in the half.
Watson went in as a cornerback on the drive to match up with Falcons receiver Jamaad Stephens, and batted away a touchdown pass before McDonald connected with Davis.
The Falcons recovered their onside kick to get the ball right back, but this time the Gainesville defense held firm, giving the offense another shot.
The Red Elephants took advantage, going 82 yards on 11 plays, capped off by a fourth-down touchdown pass of their own. This time, Watson was on the receiving end, with the ball being direct snapped to Gaudlock. He handed off to backup quarterback Mikey Gonzalez running in from the slot, who passed to a wide open Watson for the score, and a 21-0 lead with 1:56 left in the half.
Both offenses had one more shot before the half, but neither could convert.
Flowery Branch finished the game with 459 total yards of offense, including 195 rushing on 51 carries. Gainesville compiled 383 yards total, 159 rushing on 28 carries.