With his team trailing at halftime for the first time all season, Flowery Branch High football coach Ben Hall issued a challenge to his players Friday night.
The ninth-ranked Falcons were more than up to the test, and they have home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs to show for it.
Flowery Branch’s defense forced two turnovers and pitched a shutout in the second half to pull away for a 32-14 victory against Region 8-5A foe Clarke Central High at Falcon Field in Flowery Branch. The win guaranteed at least a No. 2 seed for the Falcons (8-1, 5-0 region), a feat they haven’t achieved since they last qualified for the playoffs in 2013.
“This is a huge win for our program,” said Hall, who in his first year on the job has turned Flowery Branch into a legitimate contender. “I’m so proud of the way the kids responded. … This is a true measuring stick for the program. The kids gained a lot of confidence tonight.”
Players celebrated with the school band moments after the final whistle, reveling in how far they’d come after a 3-7 record and fifth-place region finish last season. The jubilation spilled over to the student section, which stormed the field waving a large Falcons flag.
That crowd — and then some — will be on hand when Flowery Branch hosts No. 3 Buford on Nov. 3 in what will likely be the de facto region championship game.
The Falcons held the Gladiators (6-3, 3-2), who entered Friday night with Class 5A’s third-best offense, to just 120 yards, 10 first downs, and a 1-of-9 mark on third down. Senior defensive back Jacob Reid returned a fumble for a touchdown to spark his team’s second-half surge.
“We watched a lot of film this week with (defensive coordinator Bill Ballard),” Reid said. “We were prepared for all their plays and formations. We’ve got one of the fastest defenses in the region, and the defense won the game tonight.”
It was put in a few unfavorable situations early in the game, though.
Clarke Central’s two touchdown drives spanned a combined 78 yards, short fields resulting from an errant fourth-down snap and a fumbled punt.
Senior quarterback Jack Mangel found receiver Trey Johnson for the game’s opening touchdown, and junior running back Jonathan Sewell scored from 14 yards out to put the Gladiators ahead 14-12 at halftime.
“Coach Hall came in at halftime and said that we had to show what kind of team we are,” Reid said.
Flowery Branch did just that on the opening drive of the third quarter, stuffing Clarke Central on fourth and short. Then senior linebacker Colby Adams forced a fumble that Reid scooped up and returned 18 yards to put the Falcons back ahead.
“At first I just wanted to jump on it, but then I saw the open field in front of me,” said Reid, who also had a tackle for loss. “I saw the ball just chilling there and went for it. We really needed that score.”
On the ensuing drive, senior defensive back Cameron Cordell knocked the ball loose as Mangel (14 of 26, 72 yards) dropped back to pass. Classmate Will Price fell on it, setting up the second of senior running back Malik Damons’ three touchdowns.
“We were able to pressure the quarterback,” Hall said. “That contributed to the turnovers in the third quarter, which gave us all the momentum. It was a huge point in the game.”
From there, Flowery Branch played keep-away and didn’t throw a pass in the second half.
Damons, who rushed 33 times for 169 yard to surpass the 1,000-yard mark for the season, put the game away with his 1-yard scoring plunge with about six minutes to go. Junior defensive lineman Cody Inman and Price registered back-to-back sacks on Clarke Central’s final drive, cementing the Falcons’ defensive domination.
Senior running back Malik Drayton scored from 1 yard out on fourth and goal late in the first quarter. Junior defensive back Zarion Brawner also recovered a fumble for Flowery Branch, which reached its odd point total by missing two extra points and failing on a 2-point conversion.
Those issues will be addressed during next week’s open date, which the Falcons will use to brace for their huge local showdown against defending Class 5A runner-up Buford.
“It should be a great environment here for that game,” Hall said. “Buford is the standard of our region. We’re going to have to play our best game against them. But we’re still going to enjoy this win and the week off.”