Gainesville and Flowery Branch hung close for three and a half quarters in Friday’s rivalry matchup in Flowery Branch, but when it mattered most, Falcons running back Jaizen Ellingham had just enough gas left in the tank to put the Red Elephants away for good.
Ellingham carried the ball 19 times for 149 yards and four touchdowns, including a 31-yard scoring scamper with three minutes left in the game to ice a 35-21 Flowery Branch win.
“I know that we played hard,” Falcons coach Ben Hall said. “I’m proud of the way the offensive line played and running backs ran the ball well. ... We played hard when it mattered.”
The victory came despite a heroic effort from Gainesville quarterback Gionni Williams, who completed 11 of 24 passes for 119 yards, a pair of touchdowns and an interception and ran the ball 23 times for 145 yards and a score on the ground.
The game was a defensive battle in the first quarter, as the Red Elephants left points on the board with a turnover on downs and a fumble in Flowery Branch territory, but both offenses started to open up after that.
The Falcons scored on both of their possessions in the second frame, and Williams hit Walt Dixon for a touchdown on the last play from scrimmage in the half to make it a 14-7 Flowery Branch lead going into the break.
The teams exchanged touchdowns on back-to-back drives in the third quarter, as well as the fourth. But immediately after the Red Elephants scored to get within a touchdown of the lead with about three minutes remaining, Falcons defensive back Chase Dial-Watson returned a pooch kick to the Gainesville 31-yard line, and Ellingham did the rest.
Dial-Watson came up big again late, intercepting Williams’ desperation heave with a minute left to play to secure the Flowery Branch win.
ELLINGHAM SHINES IN THE CLUTCH
Though Ellingham was impressive throughout the night, it was his second half improvement that really made the junior back stand out.
Ellingham rushed 11 times for 44 yards in the first 24 minutes, with only one carry going for more than 5 yards as he struggled to find running room early on.
“I don’t think we were patient in the first half,” Hall said. “We were trying to press it.”
The second half was an entirely different story.
Ellingham’s first carry of the third quarter went for 19 yards, as he busted into space for a big first down in what became a familiar sight as the game wore on. He picked up more steam throughout the contest, culminating in gains of 13 and 31 yards on his last two carries of the night, both going for touchdowns.
“He let the runs come to him and was able to bounce,” Hall said. “We had the edge, and he did a great job of bouncing that thing. He’s a very coachable kid.”
GAINESVILLE SHOWS IMPROVED EFFORT
After last week’s disappointing loss to Jefferson, Gainesville coach Heath Webb said the top priority against Flowery Branch would be all 11 players on the field showing full effort on every single play.
And while there were lapses at time for the Red Elephants, Webb was overall happier with what his team put on the field this time around. Gainesville forced a punt with a clutch stop on third and 5 in the first half, then showed grit on a fourth and 1 stop in the second to turn the ball over on downs. Flowery Branch went up by two scores twice in the second half, and both times the Red Elephants responded with scores to get within a touchdown of the lead.
“I thought we competed well,” Webb said. “We didn’t make stops when we needed to make stops, but I thought our kids played hard.”
FLOWERY BRANCH WINS A CLOSE ONE
Coming into Friday night’s game, Flowery Branch had not been scored on after dominating shutouts of East Hall and Clarke Central and only a quarter logged in a third game against Winder-Barrow due to a weather cancellation. It was a different story against the Red Elephants.
Gainesville gave the host team a run for its money for the first time this year, and Hall said he was happy with the way his players responded. A few costly penalties — including roughing the punter and pass interference calls — both led to Red Elephant scores, but with the game on the line, the Falcons executed and made the necessary plays to win the game.
With contests against Blessed Trinity, Marist and Denmark still on the docket, the close victory provided important experience to a Flowery Branch team that feels ready to compete for a state championship.
“We needed that,” Hall said. “We haven’t played a lot of ball yet. Two games and a quarter. We needed a game like this, because we’re going to have more games like this if you look at our region.”