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Game of the week: Title on the line when Gainesville meets Flowery Branch
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Gainesville at Flowery Branch

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: Falcon Field, Flowery Branch

Radio: 102.9-FM, 1330-AM

Coaches: Gainesville, Bruce Miller; Flowery Branch, Chris Griffin

Records: Gainesville (7-2, 6-1 Region 8-AAAAA); Flowery Branch (7-2, 7-0)

Key players: Gainesville, QB Deshaun Watson (6-3, 195 Jr.); LB Devan Stringer (5-11, 180 Jr.); WR Rodney Lackey (5-11, 160 So.). Flowery Branch, QB Jackson McDonald (5-11, 172 Jr.), LB Jacob Allen (6-1, 237 Sr.), RB Justin Curry (5-11, 180 So.).

Prediction: GAINESVILLE. The Red Elephants’ defense was exposed against Loganville, but they still have the offense to outpace the Falcons in a tight game.

See more: Week 12 high-school football previews

Gainesville linebacker Devan Stringer was in the eighth grade the last time the Red Elephants and Flowery Branch Falcons met on the football field.

He remembers a packed stadium, no room to even sit down.

That was 2009, and the Red Elephants’ 29-21 win at City Park Stadium earned them a berth in the Class AAA state championship game.

In the next meeting of the brief but storied rivalry, Stringer looks to have a much bigger role as the Red Elephants (7-2, 6-1 Region 8-AAAAA) try to extend their consecutive region titles streak to five at 7:30 tonight at Falcon Field in Flowery Branch.

“It’s a huge rivalry game,” said the junior, who leads the team with 119 tackles. “And it’s a huge game for us and our season.”

The meaning of the game is simple: The winner is the Region 8-AAAAA champion, the loser finishes No. 2. Both will open the postseason at their respective home next Friday.

“These are the kind of games you want to play and you look forward to playing. You’ve got the region championship on the line and the No. 1 seed on the line, and its a county rivalry game,” Flowery Branch coach Chris Griffin said. “It doesn’t phase (the players) to be a No. 2 or No. 3 seed, but we want to be able to play at home at least two weeks. It’s not everything, but it sure would make it special to play a couple more games at home.”

It’s a game Gainesville coach Bruce Miller could see coming a few weeks back, and one that still has all meaning intact even after the Red Elephants’ 46-41 upset loss to Loganville last week.

“It was going to come down to this game. You could see the scenario coming, and after (Flowery Branch) beat Clarke Central, you knew it,” Miller said. “If you win this region, I think you’ve won something.”

It’s nearly the same scenario Flowery Branch (7-2, 7-0) has been in the last three years. Against Clarke Central in 2010 and 2011, the Falcons came in to the final game of the season undefeated in the region before falling to the Gladiators and falling short of the program’s first No. 1 seed.

Flowery Branch is once again perfect in region, including the team’s first win over Clarke Central, but a region title once again hinges on the final game of the regular season. This time, like it was in 2008 and 2009, that team is Gainesville.

“Its the first time most of them have played (Gainesville), but they understand the rivalry,” Griffin said. “Once we clinched the playoffs during the Winder-Barrow week, and then we beat Heritage to seal home field advantage, we were able to think about (the game) and what it would mean.

“We didn’t want to overlook our next opponent, but in the back of our minds it was always there.”

While Flowery Branch has reached this point by winning seven straight games, including comeback wins against fellow defending Region 8-AAAA co-champs Heritage and Clarke Central in the last two games before a bye week. Gainesville had its momentum halted last week after squandering a 21-point lead at halftime to a Loganville (3-6, 2-5) team that hadn’t scored more than 32 points up until that point.

“We just got cocky,” Gainesville nose tackle Damian Grayson said. “It happened when we played West Forsyth, we got cocky and that’s why we lost.

“But then we pushed it to the limit, and that’s how we beat Buford.”

Against a Flowery Branch defense that Miller said could be the toughest Gainesville has played all year, the Red Elephants will be looking for a repeat of the rebound they had against Buford.

Griffin said his team knows Gainesville will look much different at Falcon Field than the team did in the loss to Loganville.

“We’re realistic to know that we’re going to get Gainesville’s best,” he said.

It all starts with Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson, who leads the area with 2,376 passing yards and 32 touchdowns, along with 772 yards rushing and 12 more scores, against a Falcons secondary loaded with talented college prospects, including Darius Curry and Noel Padmore, and a pair of ball hawkers in Quinshad Jenkins and Quinton Mayfield (three interceptions apiece).

“Offensively we’re seeing the best defense we’ve played all year,” Miller said. “I’m so impressed with their secondary.”

Griffin is just as impressed with Watson.

“He’s very tough (to defend), it’s going to take all 11 guys to understand their responsibilities,” Griffin said. “It’ll be tough, and that’s why he’s been so successful.”

On defense, the Red Elephants will get the chance to make up for their worst statistical outing of the season against a Falcons offense focused on running out of the spread option.

Sophomore Justin Curry is second in the area with 1,067 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns, and quarterback Jackson McDonald has added 605 yards rushing and 12 scores for Flowery Branch, to go along with 1,121 yards passing and 13 touchdowns.

“I worry about stopping their running game,” Miller said. “They run the ball very well, and I think they present a challenge to our defense.”

The Red Elephants defense, which hadn’t allowed more than 28 points against in region play until the Loganville loss, is up for the challenge.

“It’s definitely a pride thing,” Stringer said. “We just have to execute more and make plays, and that’s something we’ve done all year is make plays.”

Notes: Friday night’s game will be part of the Great American Rivalry Series, one of 72 games in the US Marine Corps-sponsored rivalry series, and representatives will be present to cover the game. ... Gainesville is 7-2 overall in the series, which began when Flowery Branch opened in 2002. The Falcons won consecutive meetings in 2006 and 2007, but the Red Elephants have won the last three.

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