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Game of the Week: Heritage at Flowery Branch
Falcons await first stiff test in 8-AAAAA
Flowery Branch’s Noel Padmore runs with the ball during a Falcons practice earlier this season. Flowery Branch hosts Heritage in a Region 8-AAAAA showdown tonight - photo by Scott Rogers | The Times

HS football previews: Week 9

Heritage at Flowery Branch

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: Falcon Field, Flowery Branch

Coaches: Heritage, Chad Frazier; Flowery Branch, Chris Griffin

Records: Heritage (6-1, 4-1 Region 8-AAAAA); Flowery Branch (5-2, 5-0)

Key players: Heritage, LB Chase Alford (6-2, 235 Sr.), RB/LB Dustyn Moore (6-1, 225 Sr.), RB/DB Myron Fears (5-8, 175 Sr.). Flowery Branch, QB Jackson McDonald (5-11, 172 Jr.), LB Jacob Allen (6-1, 237 Sr.), RB Justin Curry (5-11, 180 So.).

Prediction: FLOWERY BRANCH. The Falcons’ offensive consistency gives them the edge in what should be a four-quarter slugfest.

Flowery Branch began the season ranked in the top five of Class AAAAA, so the Falcons certainly had no intentions of opening the 2012 campaign with back-to-back losses.

But it’s not that surprising that they did, especially in retrospect, considering who they played.

Neither of the Falcons’ first two opponents have lost a game this season — Northside-Warner Robins is 6-0 and ranked No. 1 in Class AAAAA, and West Forsyth is 6-0 and No. 5 in Class AAAAAA. They’re among the best teams in the state and maybe even the best in country, according to the CalPreps poll, which lists both teams in its top 100 in the nation.

Still, despite the fact that Flowery Branch (5-2, 5-0) has reeled off five straight victories since then and enters tonight’s game vs. Heritage tied with Gainesville atop Region 8-AAAAA, the Falcons remain somewhat of an afterthought at the state level.

A win tonight might start to change that.

Heritage (6-1, 4-1), which finished in a three-way tie for the region championship with Flowery Branch and Clarke Central last season, should be the best team the Falcons have faced since West Forsyth; the Patriots lost their only game this season to Gainesville and last week defeated Clarke Central in overtime.

A win for the Patriots tonight would keep them in the hunt for the region title and, at the very least, would be a strong step toward clinching second place.

A win for Flowery Branch would keep the Falcons on track for a possible region championship as they head into the crucial final few weeks of the season when games with Clarke Central and Gainesville loom large.

The Falcons’ biggest obstacle to a sixth straight win is expected to be the Heritage defense, which has a reputation as one of the region’s toughest.

“Their defense is one of the best we’ll see,” Flowery Branch coach Chris Griffin said. “We’re going to have to take care of the ball and take advantage of every opportunity they give us, because we’re not going to find ourselves in a situation where we have the ball as many times as we typically have it.”

The Patriots are led by pair of Division-I prospects at linebacker in Chase Alford and Dustyn Moore. Against teams other than Gainesville, which scored 42 in its win over Heritage, the Patriots are surrendering only 8.8 points per game.

“They’re going to bring pressure and be sound in the secondary,” Griffin said. “They’ve got good players everywhere, but no doubt about it, the Alford kid and the Moore kid are pretty stout.”

Flowery Branch will counter with an offense that has found its footing after losing starters at each offensive skill position last season. With four consecutive quarterbacks who have gone on to earn scholarships from FBS schools, the Falcons have been known as a quick-strike passing team, even though they boasted 1,000-yard rushers most years.

This season, however, the ground game is at the forefront, and Flowery Branch is getting most of its yards through the running of quarterback Jackson McDonald and sophomore running back Justin Curry.

“We lost a lot of guys from last year and we had to create a little bit of a new identity,” Griffin said. “It took us a couple of games. We’ve got a new quarterback and it’s a situation where we had to figure out what his strengths are, because he’s different from some of the other ones that we’ve had. So we’ve had to create a different mentality with what he’s able to do.”

It looks like the Falcons have found the right formula. They rank third in the area in rushing yards per game (258) and total yards per game (396) thanks to the work of Curry and McDonald. Curry is second in the area with 805 rushing yards, while McDonald has passed for 948 yards and 10 touchdowns and run for 528 yards and 11 more scores.

Defensively, the Falcons have a wealth of talent, including four Division-I prospects in linebackers Jacob Allen and Kris Smith and cornerbacks Darius Curry and Noel Padmore.

They have, however, been stung at times by strong running games. That could be a concern against Heritage, but in the second half of last week’s game, the Patriots abandoned their run-first option offense for the spread.

Clarke Central held Heritage to only 29 rushing yards in the first half and led 17-0, prompting Patriots coach Chad Frazier to make a change at quarterback and in offensive philosophies.

With Isaiah Spencer taking over behind center, Heritage took to the air and mounted a comeback that culminated in a game-winning touchdown run in overtime by Myron Fears. Playing just one half, Spencer finished 8 of 15 for 144 yards passing and ran for 33 yards on eight carries.

Regardless of what system the Patriots deploy tonight, Griffin expects the same over-arching scheme.

“They’re going to try to control the ball,” Griffin said. “They’re gonna try to grind it out and keep our offense off the field.

“If we get an opportunity, we’ve got to try to make points out of it.”

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