Fittingly, no Flowery Branch High football player knew exactly who made the tackle on the final play of Friday’s first-round playoff game against Kell.
Most, when asked amid the celebration at Falcon Field, simply shrugged and shook their heads. Senior linebacker Tyler Blaylock, who was on the field when it happened, guessed Myles Janess and Trey McIntosh made the play before he settled on a more appropriate assumption.
“Just say it was a swarm of Falcons,” Blaylock said.
Janess swatted away a sure touchdown pass, Jacob Reid disrupted another with a jarring hit and the Falcons made the game-sealing stop just inches from the goal line all in the waning seconds of their 21-14 win against Kell.
It all added up to Flowery Branch’s first playoff victory since 2011, despite the Longhorns’ furious fourth-quarter rally to overcome a three-score deficit.
“We just stuck to our roots there at the end,” said Blaylock, who finished with three tackles for a loss. “For all of us seniors, we knew it could be our last game, and that was just stuck in our heads. We knew we had better give it our all, especially since none of us had ever been to the playoffs before.”
The second-seeded Falcons (9-2) certainly put on a show in their first postseason appearance since 2013, even if they would have preferred to avoid such a thrilling ending.
No. 3 seed Kell (5-6), which advanced to the state semifinals last season, entered the game as Class 5A’s eighth-best offense with 36.1 points per game. But Flowery Branch pitched a shutout into the fourth quarter, showing why it boasted the class’ 10th-ranked scoring defense.
The Falcons’ defense forced two fumbles, nearly picked off two passes that just barely hit the ground and had four players join Blaylock in compiling seven tackles for loss.
“Our pressure really shut them down in the first half,” first-year Flowery Branch coach Ben Hall said. “We really played well on defense at all levels. Our front held things down, and our defensive backs were able to make some plays.”
But it was that very same pressure, Hall said, that fueled the Longhorns’ late rally.
Kell picked up 12 first downs and gained more than half of its 341 yards in the fourth quarter alone, mostly on screens as the Falcons aggressively blitzed with a 21-0 lead. The Longhorns scored twice in a four-minute window, using an interception to help swing momentum.
Flowery Branch punted back to Kell with three minutes to play, setting the stage for the frantic final drive that spanned almost 71 yards.
Kell converted two third downs and a fourth down, seemingly poised to erase its three-score deficit in a single quarter. But Janess and Reid made huge plays to force fourth and goal from the 8-yard line, on which Longhorns junior quarterback Evan Conley scrambled and was stopped just short of the left pylon.
“It was our mistakes that let them back into the game,” Blaylock said. “We shot ourselves in the foot and knew we had to correct it. … It was just a matter of chasing down and wrapping up their quarterback. He got away from us a few times.”
Conley finished with 248 total yards and even played through a noticeable limp in the second half.
He almost rallied his team after the Falcons appeared to take complete control of the contest. Flowery Branch sophomore quarterback Elijah Gainey found classmate Isaiah Nazaire for a 15-yard passing touchdown, and senior running back Malik Damons scored a 3-yard touchdown on fourth and inches to put the Falcons ahead 21-0 late in the third quarter.
It was the second fourth-down score of the night for Damons (22 carries for 116 yards), who broke a scoreless tie 23 seconds before halftime.
“The first time we went for it on fourth down, we wanted to send a message to our offensive line,” Hall said. “And we figured that if we didn’t score, Kell would have a long field. We knew Kell was capable of scoring a lot, so we weren’t about to start kicking field goals.”
Indeed, the Longhorns had two solid chances to score in the first half. But a chop block penalty turned a first and goal into a missed field goal, and Kell couldn’t find the end zone on two plays inside the Falcons’ 30-yard line just before halftime.
Flowery Branch also missed some offensive opportunities, fumbling on fourth and goal and failing to connect on a sure touchdown pass early in the game.
“It’s definitely exciting to get this win, but we’re probably going to get yelled at for not whipping them,” Blaylock said with a grin.
The Falcons will gladly take the win, even if they aren’t completely sure who secured it.
Flowery Branch can keep its turnaround season going when it travels face top-seeded and sixth-ranked Carver-Atlanta next Friday.