The football coaches of Flowery Branch and West Hall High both identified the line of scrimmage as the focal point of Friday night’s region matchup.
The cooled temperatures coupled with soggy, slick field conditions played a big part in making the game a defensive slug fest. But in the end, ninth-ranked Flowery Branch was able to overcome.
Chase Dial-Watson rushed for a 10-yard touchdown and hauled in a late interception on defense inside the final three minutes as the Falcons pulled away for a 27-7 win on the rain-soaked Spartan Field in Oakwood.
“We didn’t want this to turn into a track meet. And these conditions are definitely for a defensive game,” Falcons second-year coach Ben Hall said.
Despite back-to-back gut-wrenching losses to top-ranked Blessed Trinity and No. 7 Marist, Flowery Branch (7-2, 3-2 Region 7-4A) will return to the state playoffs under Hall after clinching a No. 3 playoff seeding with one game left. The Falcons get Denmark at home next Friday night.
As for West Hall, the Spartans (2-7, 1-4) most likely were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention with the loss and a White County win Friday.
The “next man up mentality” was very-much apparent for Flowery Branch. Hall, who’s Falcons entered the contest battered at a number of key positions — including at quarterback — saw many young players in multiple areas rise to the occasion.
With starting quarterback Elijah Gainey sidelined and backup quarterback Austin Hatcher nursing a thumb ailment, freshman David Renard slid into the spot to help lead the Falcon offense. Renard was 6 of 10 for 55 yards and a touchdown in his first big game in a varsity uniform.
“Our skill guys, we’ve gone through a rash of injuries. But the young guys stepped up and played hard, and I’m proud of the way they executed,” Hall said.
The Falcons were also missing starting running back Jaizen Ellingham, but saw others fill that void. The backfield combined for 170 yards, just enough to keep West Hall chasing the clock. A pair of big returns on special teams also played a factor in the Falcons staying ahead. Dial-Watson (143 all-purpose yards) opened the game with a huge kickoff return and carried 14 times for 68 yards to lead the Falcons backfield.
“They are really good up front, and they were able to lean on that on a wet night tonight,” West Hall coach Krofton Montgomery said. “(Falcons coach Hall) did exactly what I would have done with that offensive line.”
Montgomery still praised the overall effort and toughness of his squad.
West Hall batted helmets with one of the state’s top teams for much of the way as defensive end Corey Dupree racked up three sacks for the Spartans, Jeremiah Prather hauled in a first-half interception and the Spartans turned the Falcons over on downs in the closing minutes of the game.
The physicality of Flowery Branch’s front seven was a little more potent though, driving West Hall’s rushing attack further back as the game progressed. The Spartans were branded with -30 yards rushing for the contest, offsetting a somewhat successful second half by sophomore quarterback Clayton Jenkins.
Jenkins was responsible for every bit of the Spartans’ lone scoring drive in the fourth quarter. He moved the chains three times during the 12-play march, completing six of 11 throws for 95 yards and a touchdown — a 17-yard strike off a pump fake to wideout Devon Williams (six catches, 89 yards) — to cut it to 20-7 with 8:46 to play.
Minutes later, a Falcons turnover on downs deep inside West Hall territory with a little over five minutes left to play appeared to breathe new life in the the Spartans. But the Falcons defensive generated a strip sack on the very next snap, and Aiden Lorenz fell on the loose ball to give Flowery Branch the ball back in the same vicinity. Dial-Watson delivered the first crushing blow five plays later from West Hall’s 10, hurdling over a pile of linemen and dashing to the end zone to make it 27-7 with 2:57 left.
West Hall’s Jenkins didn’t have much time to throw in the pocket, as a number of pressured throws resulted in four dropped interceptions by the Falcons. The Spartans, who were corralled to two first downs in the first half, tried combating that defensive penetration with a plethora of well-timed screen passes in attempts to move the chains, even converting a pair of third-and-longs.
The Falcons defense otherwise compiled nine stops for a loss and got two sacks from defensive linemen Cody Inman, which often backed the Spartans into third-and-long situations. The Spartans too struggled with the wet conditions as Jenkins twice mishandled the ball off the snap but managed to fall on both fumbles in the backfield.
"Flowery Branch is a talented team, and if you give them a chance to pin their ears back, it’s gonna be easy for them. It’s simple as that," Montgomery said.
Flowery Branch led 14-0 at halftime after scoring on its first two possessions.
After scoring the first time less than two minutes into the contest, Flowery Branch stretched its lead with a run-heavy, 71-yard drive spanning 15 plays. Freshman quarterback David Renard hit D.J. Brown off a fade in the back of the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown with 1:09 left in the first period.
A 57-yard punt return by Brown, plus a horse-collar penalty on West Hall pushed the Falcons to West Hall’s 3, where Jerzee Allentini muscled and reached across the plane for a one-yard score three plays later to give Flowery Branch a 20-0 lead with 1:30 left in the third period.