Going into Friday night’s game, Flowery Branch High quarterback Elijah Gainey said last season’s clash with Clarke Central lit a fire in the team.
That flame still burned bright as the seventh-ranked Falcons found a way past a stout Gladiators squad for the second year in a row — this time at the original Falcon Field in Flowery Branch. Gainey threw for three touchdowns — all to favored target Jalin Strown — and Flowery Branch’s defense came up with a number of big-time plays to help the hosts pull away for a 28-14 win.
It was a statement win for Ben Hall’s Falcons (2-0), who emerged from the bye to pass their first big test of the season with flying colors. Despite being tied for most of the second half, Flowery Branch showed poise down the stretch to take the ninth meeting in the all-time series.
“I am beyond proud of this team,” said senior defensive lineman Aidan Lorenz, who forced a fumble on a pivotal fourth-quarter drive by the Gladiators. “We knew it was going to be a four-quarter battle.”
Lorenz was one of the many unsung heroes for Flowery Branch, sneaking around the edge to deliver a blindside hit on Clarke Central quarterback Isaac Ward that jarred the ball loose, and teammate D.J. Brown fell on it to berth what proved to be the game-clinching drive. The Falcons converted a crucial fourth down with a called screen pass to Strown (166 yards), who weaved his way 33 yards down to the Clarke Central 2-yard-line. Running back Zarian Brawner then found the end zone with a 2-yard scoring plunge on the next snap to give Flowery Branch a two-touchdown lead with 4:19 left.
Minutes earlier on the Falcons’ previous drive, a pair of Gladiators defenders forced a fumble as they rushed Gainey in the pocket, though sophomore running back Jaizen Ellingham scooped up the loose ball and scampered inside the Clarke Central 14-yard-line. It opened the door for a Strown 6-yard touchdown reception three snaps later.
“The kids finished,” Hall said. “We had a lot of young players who stepped in there, and played well. ...I was worried about this one. I knew we couldn’t let it turn into a track meet, and kept most of everything in front of us. We were able to finish.”
Gainey completed 52 percent (10 of 19) of his passes for 223 yards despite having to elude pressure and throw in air-tight coverage for much of the game.
Flowery Branch also gave up a pair of explosive touchdown plays in the first and third quarters, but the Falcons were otherwise able to hold a dynamic Clarke Central (2-1) backfield in check and keep any other big gains to a minimum.
Senior running back Jonathan Sewell twice tied the game — first with a 75-yard touchdown reception from Ward (162 passing yards) in the opening quarter, then a 10-yard touchdown run on the Gladiators’ first drive of the second half. But that was Sewell’s (24 yards) longest run, in a five-carry night. Junior running back O’Brien Barnett carried 15 times for 84 rushing yards to lead the Gladiators backfield.
But the run game of Clarke Central as a whole only managed 4.6 yards a carry against the Falcons. For that, Hall commended with his defense for tackling well.
“Our whole motivation was just to finish to the ball all the time,” Lorenz said. “Stay fundamentally sound and hit your gap, and if you trust you’ll hit your gap, it’ll force the back to bounce outside …and we’ll have support. If everybody just does their position like they’re coached to do, it should just keep rolling like we’re supposed to.”
Mistakes slowed Clarke Central’s pursuits throughout. The Gladiators were penalized 11 times for 110 yards, most of which came in big moments. The Falcons also held the Gladiators to 10 first downs for the contest and forced them into a number of third-and-long situations.
Flowery Branch hosts Winder-Barrow on Friday.