When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Callaway Stadium, LaGrange
Records: Flowery Branch (11-2), LaGrange (11-2)
Tickets: :$12, available at Flowery Branch High school 8 a.m.-3 p.m. today and 8:30 a.m. - noon on Friday.
Transportation: FBHS is offering a shuttle bus for $20 per person. Contact: email@example.com
By this point in the season, there’s no such a thing as an easy draw.
Any team that has survived three rounds of playoff games is battle-tested at worst, and a juggernaut at best.
The talent level separating opposing teams shrinks with each passing Friday night, leading to some of the most physical, exciting and intriguing highschool football of the season.
Friday night’s Flowery Branch/LaGrange game is a good example.
The Falcons are an emerging power from an emerging region. In the playoffs for the fourth straight year after opening in 2002, Flowery Branch is looking to make a splash on the state scene, by knocking off a tradition power like LaGrange.
The Grangers, with 11 state titles to their credit, are looking for their first trip to the finals since 2004.
Like most great LaGrange teams of the past, the 2008 Grangers are founded on a stellar defense.
Their eight-man front features quick, physical athletes, led by a trio of Kentucky recruits: linebacker Qua Huzzie, and defensive ends Demetri Merritt and Tristian Johnson.
Their front four isn’t overly big — only tackle Jarrell Williams tops 220 pounds — but they don’t need to be in their scheme. The Grangers create havoc for opposing offenses with loads of stunts and blitzes.
The secondary is fast and athletic, and eager to help snuff out opponents’ running games. The unit also had its hand in five Dunwoody turnovers last week, intercepting a pair of passes.
For the Flowery Branch offense, success hinges on the ability of the offensive line to open running lanes and provide quarterback Connor Shaw with time to find open receivers. Quietly, the unit has been a bedrock of the Falcons offense this year, leading the way to almost 3,000 rushing yards.
Also working in the Falcons’ favor is the mobility of Shaw. The junior, who started his first two seasons at wide receiver has shown escapability and a growing poise under pressure throughout the season. He leads the team with 920 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns while passing for 1,930 yards and 20 scores.
The emergence of 215-pound freshman running back Imani Cross (745 yards, 6 TDs) has given the Falcons depth in the backfield, but bruiser Daniel Drummond proved last week why he was so highly sought by Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson. Drummond, who’s verbally committed to the Jackets, took the game over last week against Baldwin, bulling his way to 90 yards and three second-half rushing touchdowns. He’d been limited on offense in previous weeks due to a shoulder injury. Still, he’s second on the team with 818 rushing yards (8.8 per carry) and has 10 touchdowns.
What the Falcons’ receiving corps lacks in one true standout, it makes up for with depth. Led by Rodney Young’s 20 grabs, six Flowery Branch players have at least 10 receptions on the year. Chris Lipscomb leads the crew with 425 yards and five touchdowns.
The Falcons’ pair of D-I defensive ends are the first thing that catch the attention of fans and foes alike, but the defense is solid at every level.
Izaan Cross leads the team with nine sacks and is second with 98 tackles. On the opposite end, Drummond adds seven sacks. The duo’s ability to get pressure on Grangers quarterback Rodney Tolbert could be an important indicator of success for the Falcons defense.
Tolbert, who started at QB in 2007, shifted to wide receiver to start this season, but took over at quarterback after six games when Jamius Gunsby was suspended. The Grangers get good offensive balance out of their shotgun offense, based largely around zone read options and play action passes. For the year they’ve run for 2,361 yards and passed for 1,441. Tolbert, whose numbers are strikingly similar to Gunsby’s, has accounted for 737 passing yards, completing 55 percent of his passes while throwing for eight touchdowns and two interceptions.
Ocie Salter (5-foot-6, 162 pounds) is the team’s leading rusher with 1,101 yards on 180 carries. He left last week’s game with an injury and was replaced by Darren Hairston, who responded with 100 rushing yards on 10 carries.
With an average weight of 212 pounds, the Grangers’ offensive line will be outsized by the Falcons’ front, but it’s an athletic group that shows tenacity in downfield blocking.
Similarly, the Flowery Branch linebackers are small in stature, but it hasn’t mattered much. Corey Sanderson leads the sure-tackling unit with 96 stops, including 61 solo and four sacks. David DeLeon adds 81 tackles.
The Falcons defensive backfield is led by Rod Frazier’s five interceptions and Greg Palmer’s team-high 127 tackles.
Kickoff specialist Billy Thompson has made life hard on Falcons’ opponents all season, regularly booting kicking into the end zone and making offenses work 80 yards for the end zone.
LaGrange kicker Joseph Mansour has big leg, too, and has a 55-yard field goal under his belt this year. But the Grangers have struggled at times throughout the season on PATs for a variety of reasons.
Flowery Branch kicker Will Monday has been almost automatic, converting on 50 of 52 PATs and six of eight field goal attempts.
Monday also averages 38 yards per punt, with eight of his 40 tries being downed inside the 20-yard line.