After making the playoffs for nine straight seasons, Flowery Branch had hoped to avoid last season’s start to Region 8-AAAAA play in which they lost their first two games, ending their postseason streak.
But the defending region champion Lanier Longhorns would not cooperate, defeating the Falcons 3-0 in a defensive showdown at Falcon Stadium on Friday night for their 14th consecutive region win.
The defensive mentality on both sides was established in the game’s first two possessions as the teams traded turnovers. The first came on an interception by Flowery Branch defensive end Chewy Alvardo as he tipped the ball at the line of scrimmage before coming down with it at the 50-yard line on Lanier’s fourth play from scrimmage.
The Falcons returned the favor just two plays later as Longhorns defensive back C.J. Burress intercepted a pass from Falcons quarterback Kory Graham at the Lanier 42.
Both teams traded turnovers and punts for the rest of the half as Lanier totalled seven first half possessions which resulted in three punts, two fumbles, an interception and a missed 32-yard field goal just seconds before the half.
Flowery Branch fared no better as its seven first-half possessions resulted in 25 plays for only 68 yards, including three punts, two interceptions, turning the ball over on downs and a kneel-down to end the half.
Lanier running back Ashton Barnes totalled 41 yards on six first half carries before leaving the game midway through the first quarter with a knee injury. The Baity brothers, Marcko and Marcella, totalled only 26 yards first-half yards themselves on 10 combined carries as the Flowery Branch defensive front, led by outside linebacker Ryan Broome’s five tackles-for-loss, held steady against a young Lanier offensive line.
Middle linebacker Anthony Woodall added 10 total tackles and a fumble recovery for the Falcons. Graham, who began the season as the third-string quarterback for Flowery Branch, failed to complete a pass in the first half on six attempts against a stout Longhorns defense whose first unit has not allowed an offensive touchdown.
The state’s top rated prospect, 6-foot-4, 320-pound defensive end Derrick Brown was his usual dominating self, leading the way with nine tackles including 3.5 for loss. Linebacker Devin Miller also added nine tackles and a sack.
Flowery Branch could only muster 68 yards on the ground, 53 by running back Trey Wilcox on 12 carries in the first half.
The game’s only score of the game came on a field goal in the third quarter after the Lanier running game started wearing down Flowery Branch’s defense. The Longhorns drove 75 yards on 14 plays, with the Baity brothers taking turns pounding the ball down the middle, one brother often lead blocking for the other.
Tolbert also completed two passes for 34 yards, including a key third-and-long for 16 yards to Marcella after it was tipped by Falcon defensive back Paul Jaramillo.
Flowery Branch mustered a final comeback on a drive that started on its own 1-yard line with less than three minutes remaining. It ended on a failed fourth-and-1 in which Malik Drayton was stopped for no gain on a fly sweep at the Longhorn 28-yard line. The drive was aided by two pass interference calls on the Longhorns and a hook-and-lateral pass that went for 13 yards to Cortez Davis. Tolbert rushed for 10 yards on the ensuing possession and took a kneel down to end the game.
The Falcons finished the game with 116 yards: 67 yards rushing, 49 passing. Graham completed five passes for 47 yards on Flowery Branch’s final ill-fated drive but was only 6-for-17 for 49 yards for the game. Davis and Drayton each had 2 receptions for 22 and 4 yards respectively.
Wilcoxson was the Falcons workhorse with 62 yards on 23 rushes. Lanier totalled 303 yards of total offense; 129 passing on 13-of-20 completions for Tolbert, and 174 rushing on the efforts of Marko Baity’s 84 yards (on 15 carries) and Marcella’s 24 on 11. Alex Wyant caught 7 passes for 70 yards.
Flowery Branch (1-2, 0-1) tries for its first region win next week at Heritage, Conyers while Lanier (3-0, 2-0) travels to Cedar Shoals.