As Cody Inman stood with both hands resting on his waist postgame Friday night, the senior linebacker kept looking back at the scoreboard. Inman was still in awe of the final score between his Flowery Branch High football team and top-ranked Blessed Trinity.
His hair covered in sweat, and his face flushed with exhaustion could only paint one piece of the tale. Inman’s words said it all.
“We have one heck of a football team,” he said with a grin. “Man ...Can we play together!”
The fifth-ranked Falcons went stride for stride with the defending Class 4A champions before falling one play short in overtime with a 21-20 loss in Flowery Branch.
Blessed Trinity (7-0, 3-0 Region 7-4A) quarterback Jake Smith connected with wideout Ryan Davis in the back of the end zone on third-and-goal for the go-ahead touchdown in overtime.
Flowery Branch answered back three plays later on a Zarian Brawner 1-yard scoring plunge to make it 21-20, and the Falcons (6-1, 2-1) elected to go for the win.
Starting quarterback Elijah Gainey, after throwing for a pair of touchdowns to wide receiver Jalin Strown during regulation, dropped back and rolled to his left before unloading a pass toward the back of the end zone.
But Gainey’s final attempt floated through the hands of his intended target, eliciting pandemonium from Blessed Trinity’s sideline as the Titans rushed the field in celebration.
The loss, Inman said, was heartbreaking.
But there was no denying that Flowery Branch had just made a statement to Blessed Trinity, and quite possibly the entire state Friday.
The Falcons still have a chance to play for the No. 2 spot in the region when they face Marist — last year’s state runner-up — next Friday night.
“Do you understand me? You went toe-to-toe with the No. 1 team in the state,” Falcons coach Ben Hall shouted to his players in the postgame debriefing. “You got their attention, and you earned their respect. Do you understand that?”
The game itself was as advertised — a battle of two unbeaten and state-ranked squads, fighting for preeminence in the region. The Falcons, after erasing a two touchdown, first-half deficit managed to deadlock this Region 7-4A game at 14 all, and kept it that way for the majority of the second half.
It was a defensive slug fest. Flowery Branch held one of the most potent attacks in the classification to just three first downs and limited the Titans backfield to a combined 3.6 yards a carry for the entire second half. As a result, the Falcons dared the Titans to beat them downfield in the passing game, Flowery Branch deploying enough pressure to keep the quarterback off his mark. Blessed Trinity's Smith, after briefly exiting the field in the third quarter with an apparent knee injury sustained as he rolled out for a play, finished with just 29 passing yards on 7 of 14 attempts.
“The physicality, the teamwork, the effort. The want to, the drive — everything about tonight was just … outstanding. Absolutely amazing to be a part of,” said Inman, who was very much a part of that defensive effort as well.”
Hall commended the game plan of his defensive coordinator, Jason Tester, who had an emotional evening as his father passed away earlier in the week.
“Our defense played inspired football tonight,” Hall said. “(Coach Tester) has been coaching with a heavy heart, and he did a great job there. Our kids battled for him.”
As for the Falcons offense, which entered the contest ranked third in the Class 4A, outgained Blessed Trinity 314-153 for the contest, though only had eight first downs.
Gainey finished with 193 yards passing on 16 of 37 attempts and was intercepted by Blessed Trinity’s Smith for the first play of the second quarter, during which Smith returned the takeaway the other way for a two-score lead.
Titans lead back Steele Chambers finished with 105 yards on 23 carries, though the majority of his production came on a 13-play scoring drive spanning over six minutes to open the game for the Titans.
Flowery Branch otherwise won the physical battle at the point of the attack, fully committing to stopping the run by crowding the box and mixing in a number of blitz packages. The Falcons also cashed in one of two Blessed Trinity fumbles in regulation, the second coming inside the two-minute mark of the second period.
Defensive back Strown, who also finished with 116 receiving yards, berthed Flowery Branch’s first touchdown drive before intermission. He fell on a Chambers’ fumble caused by a herd of Falcon defenders inside the Blessed Trinity 41. And on the next snap, Gainey was hit as he threw but still connected with Strown in traffic for a 41-yard touchdown, cutting it to 14-7 at the 1:00 mark of the second period.
Blessed Trinity quickly found its footing in the game’s opening drive behind Chambers, who racked up 47 of the Titans’ 67 yards during a six-plus minute drive. On the 13th play, Blessed Trinity broke the scoreless tie off a 1-yard quarterback keeper from Smith.
The Falcons defense, often dropping both safeties inside the box, slowly found ways to stall the bruising run game of Chambers and the remaining Titans backfield, though almost couldn’t get out of its own way on offense. Flowery Branch was penalized five times for 42 yards, including a pair of false starts that took away third-and-short scenarios.
The Falcons also failed to capitalize on an Ethan McKay fumble recovery inside their own 35-yard-line. It eventually built into a fourth-and-goal scenario from Blessed Trinity's 3-yard-line, but Gainey was picked off by defensive back Smith, who returned the takeaway for a 93-yard pick-six and a 14-0 Titans lead.
Gainey orchestrated the game-tying drive midway through the third quarter. He converted a third-and-4 with a 49-yard quarterback run. And three plays later, Gainey zipped his second touchdown completion to Strown up the seam to make it 14-all with 8:58 left in the period.
The Falcons continue their region slate with a road matchup against defending Region 7-4A champion Marist in Atlanta.