FLOWERY BRANCH - The Flowery Branch Falcons' defense was tasked with making the difference in Friday night's second round playoff game at Falcon Field.
Four fumble recoveries and an interception later, the defense allowed the offense the opportunity to run out the last seconds of a 31-21 victory over Thomas County Central (7-5) - no last-second heroics needed.
"We talked about how defense was going to have to win the game for us," Falcons coach Lee Shaw said. "We're in the quarters and that's special."
Flowery Branch (11-1) will travel to No. 1 Tucker (12-0) for the quarterfinal match-up, the Falcons' first trip to the third round since 2009, when the team advanced all the way to the semifinals.
"We've got to start preparing for next week," said senior quarterback Kanler Coker. "but this feels good.
"The defense really stepped it up."
Coker led the way on offense, rallying his team from a 14-10 deficit at halftime and throwing a 10-yard touchdown pass to receiver C.J. Curry with 1:10 left in the third to take the lead for good at 23-21.
Coker finished 8 of 18 passing for 122 yards, two touchdowns and one interception - the Falcons' only turnover of the game - and added 121 yards rushing on 22 carries and another score.
"They were keying on (running back) Jeremy (Haley) big time, which opened it up for me," Coker said.
After the fourth and final fumble recovery by the Falcons defense late in the fourth, Coker finished off another drive with a 15-yard run and a succesful two-point conversion to effectively seal the win with 3:43 remaining.
Cornerback Noel Padmore provided the defensive flourish with 27 seconds left, grabbing an interception with the Yellow Jackets driving.
The turnovers prevented the Thomas County Central offense from doing what the team had planned to do - keep the Falcons offense off the field.
The Yellow Jackets still came out ahead on most offensive statistics, racking up more than 27 minutes of possession and compiling 325 yards of offense to the Falcons' 309; part of the reason why Flowery Branch decided to not give the ball to Thomas County Central to start the second half.
Instead, Falcons kicker Leo Manzo, who had already made a 35-yard field goal, bounced the ball into the Yellow Jackets players and then back to Flowery Branch for a successful onside kick.
"We decided tonight that we would be very aggressive on special teams," Shaw said.
The Falcons recovered on the 50 and on the second play of the drive Coker hit receiver Chris Dilidili on the right sideline for a 40-yard touchdown catch and Flowery Branch's first lead of the night at 17-14.
Thomas County Central would retake the lead briefly, but the Falcons had let it be known that they would not let the Yellow Jackets dictate the terms of the game.
"Our team battled all night long," Shaw said. "We beat a very good football team tonight."
Flowery Branch had to rally from a 14-3 deficit to do it, and the defense allowed the rally to happen, holding Thomas County Central to just one more touchdown after the Yellow Jackets had gone up 14-3 with 11:08 remaining in the second.
Thomas County Central was led by sophomore quarterback Adam Choice with 118 yards rushing on 20 carries and a touchdown, and senior running back James Davis with 149 yards rushing and a score.
Choice also threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Deondre Cooksey to give the Yellow Jackets their first lead of the night at 7-3.
But it was the Thomas County Central defense that led the way in the first half.
And it was on the strength of Coker's legs, not in his arm, that kept Flowery Branch close in a first half controlled by Thomas County Central, which led 14-10 at the break.
Coker broke a 58-yard run on the second play of the game to get the Falcons to the Yellow Jackets 21-yard line, but the Thomas County defense held firm, forcing a 35-yard field goal try by Manzo, who split the uprights to put Flowery Branch ahead 3-0.
The Yellow Jackets took nearly five minute on their initial drive, marching down field using an effective option attack.
They took the lead on Choice's first pass of the game as the sophomore lofted the ball to a wide open Cooksey for a 21-yard touchdown pass and a 7-3 lead.
After stopping the Falcons, Thomas County Central went right back to work, finishing off a seven-play, 64-yard drive with a 40-yard run by Davis, who broke through the defense untouched and sprinted to the end zone for a 14-3 lead with 11:08 left in the second.
After stops by each defense, Flowery Branch finally put together a touchdown drive, going 62 yards in 10 plays, including six runs by Coker.
Haley finished it off with a 4-yard run to get the Falcons within four points.
The Falcons had one more chance after a fumble by Thomas County Central that was recovered by Falcons' senior Jonathan Frick at the Flowery Branch 47.
Coker completed his first two passes of the game after starting 0 for 5, but his pass to the end zone sailed long.
It took Coker awhile to find his touch passing, but he recovered with six more completions and a pair of touchdowns in the second half.
Tucker, the top ranked team in Class AAAA, is the No. 1 seed from Region 6-AAAA, and will be yet another test for Flowery Branch, which lost in the second round last season, its first in Class AAAA.
The defense was a big strength of the team throughout this season, but in the last two weeks the Falcons allowed 38 points per game, including a 38-35 loss to Clarke Central to end the regular season and a 41-38 win over Johns Creek in the first round of the playoffs.
The defense had, however, been opportunistic with three interceptions returned for touchdowns the last two weeks.
They continued the trend with five more turnovers forced Friday night.
The unit also came through in the fourth when the offense was stopped short on fourth and goal from the 3-yard line, after the defense recovered a Yellow Jackets muffed punt on the 4-yard line.
The Falcons drove Thomas County central back to the 1-yard line, and the Falcons used the next drive to go up 31-21.