There’s been constant challenges on the schedule for Flowery Branch this season, but this week is certainly the most imposing challenge so far in 2018.
The fifth-ranked Falcons (6-0, 2-0 Region 7-4A) tackle their toughest task by far Friday night when they host top-ranked and reigning Class 4A state champion Blessed Trinity (6-0, 2-0) for a region showdown at Falcon Field in Flowery Branch.
In what is the first meeting between the two programs, the Falcons get their first taste of a Titans team that not only reigns supreme in the state, but also resides in the top-50 of Maxpreps’ national rankings (42).
With Blessed Trinity and sixth-ranked Marist holding down the top-2 spots in the region for the last two seasons, tonight’s clash bares big playoff seeding implications with only three weeks left in the regular season.
Falcons coach Ben Hall said nothing has been altered from a preparation standpoint. The players — his starting quarterback included — are focused and eager to tackle the task at hand.
“They know what’s in front of them, and what’s at stake,” Hall said. “They’re excited about the opportunity, playing in a game like this.”
Falcons starting quarterback Elijah Gainey certainly isn’t fazed. The trust in the coaching staff is there, he said, to put the Falcons in position for success.
“We’ve had a really focused two days of practice this week,” Gainey said Tuesday. “It’s a game for us to show what we can really do.”
The Falcons have had their fair share of bouts with historically successful programs already in Hall’s tenure. Last fall, Flowery Branch traded punches with Hall’s old program at Jefferson High, before lining up against 11-time state champion Buford in the Region 8-5A finale.
And now, they get the Titans, a team coached by Tim McFarlin that has dropped only one region contest since joining the Class 4A in 2016 — a loss to Marist in last year’s 7-4A title game. Blessed Trinity has otherwise won four of its last five region championships and has made dents in the state playoffs in each of its last five seasons, reaching the state finals in 2015 and defeated region foe Marist for the 4A crown last year.
McFarlin even returns the brunt of a championship roster that is currently radiating with confidence, according to Hall. That includes a handful of Division I commits to bolster a Titans defense that has given up the fifth-fewest points (10) per game in the Class 4A behind Flowery Branch (9.2).
The heart of Blessed Trinity’s defense is its linebacker corps, one Gainey described as one of — if not the best — groups he’ll face in his high school career thus far. It’s a “high-motored” unit bolstered by four-star prospect J.D. Bertrand (6-1, 215 pounds) — who recently decommitted from Georgia — in the middle, followed by Ohio State pledge Steele Chambers off the edge. Defensive end/tackle J.R. Bivens (Middle Tennessee State) is another player known for creating chaos at the point of attack.
Hall said front recognition will be crucial against Blessed Trinity, which garners a reputation for deploying multiple blitz packages that can even stretch into the third tier of its defense. The Titans have accrued 38 stops for a loss and 10 sacks through their first six games.
“They give you different fronts and they bring a lot of pressure, just because they can,” Hall added. “They have talented kids on the back end, and they try to bring as much pressure as they can underneath to give offenses trouble. We’re gonna have to be able to protect.”
Both offenses share plenty of similarities. The Falcons in the pro-set have averaged a region-best 43 points a game behind a balanced attack led by starting quarterback Gainey (1,356 passing yards, 12 touchdowns, two interceptions) and a slew of playmakers around him that include wideouts Jalin Strown and DJ Brown, the latter having three touchdown catches in the first half against Chestatee last week. For an offense also known for milking the clock with a potent run game, Flowery Branch should meet its match in terms of physicality at the line of scrimmage.
“Blessed Trinity is not gonna be a team to line up and just mash em,” Hall said. “You’re gonna have to spread them out and take advantage of what they give you and be able to take what they give you. That’s gonna be the key to our success.”
The Titans show very few weaknesses on the offensive side themselves. It is a disciplined attack (40 ppg.) that can control the clock, while making very few mistakes according to Hall. It’ll be led by the talents of senior back Chambers (632 yards, 15 touchdowns), followed by quarterback Jake Smith (58 of 85), who has thrown for 883 yards and six touchdowns with no picks this season. Chambers rushed for 152 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries to add to his three stops for losses on defense in a 47-6 victory over Denmark last week.
With a trip to Marist on the docket for next week, it’s a chance for Flowery Branch to make a strong case for early bragging rights in this top-heavy 7-4A. Having the support of their fans and a rowdy student section that is “The Darkside” should also lend a helping hand for the Falcons, according to Hall.
It still goes back to what he and his coaching staff have preached from Day 1.
“The kids realize that they have to do the little things right to have a chance,” he said. “We’ve been selling that the last year-and-a half, and hopefully that pays off.”