Clarke Central at Flowery Branch
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Falcon Field, Flowery Branch
Coaches: Clarke Central, Ahren Self; Flowery Branch, Chris Griffin
Records: Clarke Central (5-2, 4-1 Region 8-AAAAA); Flowery Branch (6-2, 6-0)
Key players: Clarke Central, QB Cameron Johnson (6-3, 190 Jr.); WR/DB Jaquan Dowdy (6-1, 185 Jr.); WR Austin Johnson (6-1, 185 Jr.). Flowery Branch, QB Jackson McDonald (6-0, 180 Sr.); OL Andrew Miles (6-5, 280 Sr.); WR/KR A’lencio Graham (5-11, 175 Sr.).
The two losses to start the season seem like an eternity ago for Flowery Branch.
The Falcons have reeled off six straight wins and are in the thick of the championship race in Region 8-AAAAA.
Tonight, the Falcons (6-2, 6-0) can take another major step toward their showdown with fourth-ranked Gainesville on Nov. 8 when they host Clarke Central in a pivotal region matchup at Falcon Field.
“We’re calling this the playoffs,” Flowery Branch coach Chris Griffin said. “This is not the end of the regular season. Basically, every game dictates the next week. So that is the mindset that we’ve got right now and we’ve had that since going into last week’s game against Heritage.”
Flowery Branch, which is in a tie with the Red Elephants atop the region standings, can clinch at least the No. 2 seed in the region, securing a home playoff game in the first round, with a win tonight over Clarke Central.
Clarke Central (5-2, 4-1), meanwhile, enters the game with just one region loss – a 56-28 defeat to Gainesville last Friday night – and can throw a wrench into the Falcons’ plans with an upset win tonight, while also positioning itself for a home playoff game.
Following their meeting with the Falcons, the Gladiators have games remaining against Winder-Barrow and Cedar Shoals, two teams that have combined for a 1-9 region record this season. If Clarke Central wins out, along with a Falcons’ loss to Gainesville, the Gladiators would secure the No. 2 seed, and sending the Falcons on the road in the first round.
“We all know it is there and we all know what is at stake,” Griffin said. “The personality of this team is more about we are going to continue to do the right things and everything will take care of itself.”
Clarke Central is in its first season under coach Ahren Self, a first-year head coach at the high school level. Under Self, the Gladiators have already matched their win total from a season ago at five, and are in position to keep a seven-year playoff streak alive.
Offensively, the Gladiators feature a balanced attack. Through seven games, they have 1,317 yards rushing and 1,381 yards passing.
Senior Cameron Johnson is the team’s quarterback, completing 61 percent of his passes for 1,180 yards with 10 touchdowns. On the ground, Jaqua Daniels leads the team with 635 yards and 12 scores.
“They are like a normal Clarke Central. They are athletic,” Griffin said. “They will be the most athletic team we’ve played, second to Northside. They’re very physical, very well coached. They don’t make too many mistakes.”
Flowery Branch, which secured the region championship last season despite losing its first two games, is led by senior quarterback Jackson McDonald.
The James Madison commit has been able to use his arm and legs to spearhead a Falcon offensive attack that is averaging 40.6 points per game during the six-game winning streak.
McDonald has thrown for 1,289 yards and he leads the team with 466 yards rushing. He has 25 total touchdowns this season (16 passing, 9 rushing).
“(Jackson) is playing his best football that he has ever played right now,” Griffin said. “Last year he was more of a running threat, but this year, he can still run the ball as good as any, but people are really trying to take that away and he has just opened up the vertical game.”
The key to McDonald, though, has been the play of his offensive line.
“You’ll hear it from everybody and it is the 100 percent truth, it is our O-line,” McDonald said. “It starts with our O-line ... I can sit back there and have all the time in the world because they’re doing a heck of a job.”
Tonight, the Falcons are hoping their offensive attack, coupled with a defensive unit that has allowed just seven points in the past two weeks, can be the ultimate difference against a Clarke Central team that has won its five games this season by an average of two touchdowns.
“If our offense plays the way they have the past five or six weeks, and defense does the same thing, we have a chance.”