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High school football previews: State playoffs, 2nd round
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Flowery Branch has a history of fourth-quarter rallies

Monroe-Albany at Gainesville

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: City Park Stadium

Radio: 1240-AM

Coaches: Monroe-Albany, Charles Truitt; Gainesville, Bruce Miller.

Records: Monroe-Albany (6-5, No. 3 Region 1-AAA), Gainesville (10-1, No. 1 Region 8-AAA)

Key players: Monroe-Albany, DE Zantrell McMillian (6-3, 220 Sr.), QB Charles Stafford (6-2, 205 So.), WR Kevin Williams (5-10, 175 Jr.). Gainesville, QB Deshaun Watson (6-2, 185 So.), DB Fred Payne (5-9, 170 Jr.), DL Jeremiah Ledbetter (6-3, 240 Sr.).

Outlook: This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Red Elephants with only eight returning starters, but with a win tonight they will get further in the state playoffs than the 2010 squad. Gainesville advanced to the second round with a 48-27 win against Dalton last Friday, while Monroe-Albany made the second round for the first time since 2007 with a 12-9 win against No. 9 Baldwin.

Last season, Gainesville lost in the second round to Cedar Grove 34-25 at City Park Stadium. The Red Elephants are trying to make the state quarterfinals tonight for the third time in four seasons.

Red Elephants QB Watson is a returning starter from last season and has picked up where he left off in 2010. After 11 games, he has thrown for 2,543 yards with 36 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Watson has accounted for seven combined touchdowns rushing and passing in each of his last two outings (Stephens County and Dalton).

No. 6 Gainesville's receiving group looks similar to last season with Stephen Mason (48 catches, 785 yards), Justin Cantrell (45 catches, 618 yards), Tray Harrison (27 catches, 612 yards) and Lahius Leverette (25 catches, 385 yards). Last week, each of these receivers had a touchdown catch against the Catamounts, along with a touchdown catch by Caleb Hayman.

Watson is the Red Elephants' leading rusher with 727 yards and 11 touchdowns. For the year, Gainesville is averaging 462 yards of offense per game (249 passing, 213 rushing).

"They have a lot of weapons," Truitt said. "And they catch the ball too. Very rarely do they drop passes."

The Tornadoes will try to limit Gainesville with a young, but talented defense. McMillian is the leader for Monroe at linebacker with 104 tackles, 11 sacks and two fumble recoveries. The Tornadoes' leading running back is Brandon Gordon with 90 carries for 737 yards.

Gainesville's defense is led by senior free safety Eli Nwefo (99 tackles) and Devon Stringer (99 tackles).

Meanwhile, Monroe-Albany also has a powerful quarterback in Stafford, who has 2,378 passing yards and 18 touchdowns. His leading receiving target is Williams (77 catches, 886 yards, 7 TDs).

Gainesville enters on a 10-game winning streak. Monroe-Albany has won three in a row. The Tornadoes' last loss was 28-25 against Crisp County on Oct. 21. The Tornadoes only lost twice by more than 10 points all season.

Given the travel distance for the game, Truitt is trying to neutralize its impact by taking the team halfway on Thursday night. Today, they'll do a walk through during the day at Creekside High, just south of Atlanta in Fairburn.

Prediction: GAINESVILLE. The Red Elephants should be well rested and ready to go tonight, while the Tornadoes will be road weary after a five-hour bus trip.

Thomas County Central at Flowery Branch

When: 8 tonight

Where: Falcon Field, Flowery Branch

Radio: 1330-AM, 102.9-FM

Coaches: Thomas County Central, Bill Shaver; Flowery Branch, Lee Shaw

Records: Thomas County Central (7-4, No. 4 Region 1-AAAA); Flowery Branch (10-1, No. 3 Region 8-AAAA)
Key players: Thomas County Central, QB Adam Choice (5-9, 192 So.), RB/LB James Davis (5-7, 177 Sr.), Winston Codling (5-9, 160 Jr.). Flowery Branch, QB Kanler Coker (6-4, 210 Sr.), WR Casey Osborne (6-2, 180 Sr.), RB Jeremy Haley (5-8, 210 Sr.).

Outlook: Both of these teams won close games on the road last week to get to the second round.

The Yellow Jackets outlasted No. 3 Statesboro, 31-28, in overtime last Friday, and the Falcons shocked Johns Creek, 41-38, on a last-second Hail Mary touchdown pass.

Both of these teams were also tough draws for their opponents.

"They're a No. 4 seed on paper, but that's relative to their region," Shaw said.

Thomas County Central hasn't missed the playoffs since 1990, Flowery Branch has gone every year since 2005, and both teams have reached the state title game (both lost) in the last 10 years.

Similar pedigrees, but the teams win in very different ways.

The Yellow Jackets rule the ground with a split-back offense. Choice led the region with 1,386 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns on 176 carries, and Davis added 885 yards and eight scores on 133 carries. As a team, Thomas County Central scored 29 points per game with its efficient rushing attack.

The Falcons have a 1,000-yard rusher as well in Haley (1,236 yards and 19 touchdowns on 146 carries), but it is the passing game that differentiates Flowery Branch from its opponent.

While Coker is actually second on the team rushing with 617 yards and 13 touchdowns, his passing has led the way with 2,347 yards and 27 touchdowns on 144 of 238 passing. Osborne has 47 receptions for 764 yards and eight touchdowns and fellow senior C.J. Curry has 776 yards receiving and 11 scores. The Falcons have averaged 47 points of offense per game.

Statistically, Flowery Branch has been the better defensive team, allowing just 17 points per game while Thomas County Central has allowed an average of 26.

But the Yellow Jackets have been better as of late, allowing 27 points to Bainbridge and 28 to Statesboro, with both games being decided in overtime. The Falcons defense has allowed 38 points to each of its past two opponents after allowing as much as 30 points just once in the first nine games.

Prediction: FLOWERY BRANCH. The Yellow Jackets might be the toughest opponent the Falcons have faced yet, but the home team has proven that it can win a shootout, which this game could very well turn into.

Jefferson County at Buford

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: Tom Riden Stadium, Buford

Radio: 550-AM

Coaches: Jefferson County, J.B. Arnold; Buford, Jess Simpson

Records: Jefferson County (8-3, No. 3 Region 3-AA), Buford (11-0, No. 1 Region 6-AA)

Key players: Jefferson County, RB Dontavius Kitchens (5-9, 185 Jr.), QB/WR Lafayell Williams (6-2, 185 So.), DE Gerald Harmon (6-3, 200 Sr.). Buford, OL/DL Vadal Alexander (6-5, 315 Sr.), TE/LB Dillon Lee (6-5, 240 Sr.), TE/DE Kurt Freitag (6-5, 240 Sr.)

Outlook: At first glance at this match-up, you see a Buford team that hasn't lost in 24 games and consider Jefferson County, which enters tonight's game with a three-loss record, as just another step on the Wolves' inevitable march to a state title.

And while that may be the case, it would overlook the great things the Warriors have done in the second half of this season.

Jefferson County has won seven games in a row since changing quarterbacks after a 1-3 start. Since Williams took over, he has been the leader of an offense that has increased its scoring average from 20 points per game in its first four to 31.6 points per game in the last seven, including a season-high 49 in its win over Putnam County in the first round of the playoffs a week ago.

The Warriors have found success primarily on the ground, with Williams rushing for nearly 800 yards and Kitchens with 1,369 on the season.

The offense has also protected the ball well. Williams has tossed just two interceptions in his seven games as the quarterback.

But what happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object?

The Buford defense has allowed just 57 points all season (5.1 per game). Of the 10 drives Buford defended against Temple last Friday, four ended in lost yardage. The Wolves allowed just 128 yards of total offense and forced two turnovers.

How Jefferson County handles Buford's big defenders at the line of scrimmage will go a long way to deciding whether the Warriors can do what no one else has done - finish the game within 27 points of arguably the state's most complete football team.

Defending the Wolves' running game will be no easy task for Jefferson County, either. A deep pack of runners, led by senior Andre Johnson (738 yards, 14 touchdowns), has shown that it can run with anybody. And when the team starts passing like it did last Friday (quarterback Sam Clay was 10 of 12 for 132 yards and two touchdowns), it becomes a near-impossible attack to slow.

Prediction: BUFORD. Few teams have ever done what Buford has done this year. Look for its steady march to continue with a defensive show of force tonight.

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