Flowery Branch at LaGrange
7:30 p.m., Callaway Stadium, LaGrange
Radio: WDUN 550-AM
Directions: From Flowery Branch, take Interstate 985 south to Interstate 85. Stay south on Interstate 85 for 95 miles and exit at No. 18 LaGrange traveling west on Ga. Hwy. 109. Turn left on Morgan Street (US-27) and continue on Whitesville Road (Ga. 219). Turn right on West Mulberry Street and continue onto Miller Street. Turn left on Truitt Avenue and then right on Dallis Street. Callaway Stadium is located at 801 Dallis Street.
Records: Flowery Branch (11-2); LaGrange (11-2)
Coaches: Flowery Branch, Lee Shaw; LaGrange, Steve Pardue
Key players: Flowery Branch, FB/DE Daniel Drummond (6-3, 245 Sr.); QB Connor Shaw (6-2, 185 Jr.); DE Izaan Cross (6-4, 250 Sr.). LaGrange, LB/FB Qua Huzzie (5-11, 203 Sr.); DE/TE Demetri Merritt (6-4, 203 Sr.); RB/LB Ocie Salter (5-6, 165 Jr.).
When Flowery Branch has the ball:
Multiple spread option vs. eight man front
The Falcons have the proven ability to pass and run efficiently. Flowery Branch still displays elements of its trademark passing attack (Connor Shaw has completed 127-of-213 passes for 1,930 yards and 20 touchdowns). But Flowery Branch’s addition of a strong running game is the reason it has strung together three straight playoff victories, all on the road.
Shaw (920 yards, 10 TDs), senior fullback Daniel Drummond (818 yards, 10 TDs) and freshman running back Imani Cross (745 yards, 6 TDs) lead the way. Last week, Drummond scored three second half touchdowns to deliver Flowery Branch’s first state semifinal appearance in school history.
"It’s still kind of surreal thinking about playing in the state semifinals," Falcons coach Lee Shaw said. "When we started here seven years ago, we had teams that laid the foundation for what we’ve been able to achieve.
"They didn’t have the same success, but they worked just as hard."
LaGrange’s story in recent seasons is filled with success, including Class AAA state titles in 2001, 2003 and 2004. The Grangers’ last trip to the state semifinals was in 2005, when this year’s seniors were freshmen.
"I wish we got points for tradition," Grangers coach Steve Pardue said. "But every group is different, and that really doesn’t have any bearing on this year’s team."
LaGrange’s defense sets the tone for its success. The Grangers have a quick, hard-hitting unit which has only allowed an average of 10 points per game and 2.7 yards per rushing attempt.
LaGrange senior linebacker Qua Huzzie, who is verbally committed to Kentucky, leads the team with 135 tackles (17 for a loss). Fellow Kentucky commit Demetri Merritt has 76 tackles and a team-high six sacks.
"I think it’s crucial for us to find a good flow on offense," Lee Shaw said. "And take what their defense is giving us."
When LaGrange has the ball:
Multiple vs. Multiple
Operating out of various offensive sets, LaGrange runs the ball about 75 percent of the time. The Grangers average 5.3 yards per rushing attempt and 10 yards per pass completion. Ocie Salter, a junior, leads LaGrange’s running game with 180 carries for 1,101 yards and 11 TDs. Rodney Tolbert is its quarterback and has completed 45-of-82 passes for 737 yards. Flowery Branch’s defense is anchored by safety Greg Palmer (127 tackles, five for a loss), Izaan Cross (98 tackles, 17 tackles for a loss and nine sacks), and junior linebacker Cory Sanderson (96 tackles).
No. 2 seed LaGrange earned the right to play this game at home, even though it had to play on the road in the third round against No. 1 seed Dunwoody at North Dekalb Stadium. Despite the home edge, Pardue is still a fan of the former format with state semifinal games played at the Georgia Dome. He’s coached the Grangers to the state semifinals five times in his 15 year career.
"I liked the way it was before," Pardue said. "It just gives more kids that opportunity to play that game at the Georgia Dome."
Shaw said changing the state playoff format only heightens his team’s expectations.
"Our guys are still talking about playing that game at the Dome," he said.
Flowery Branch and LaGrange share a common opponent in Stephens County this year. LaGrange defeated Stephens County 30-6 in the fourth week of the regular season. Flowery Branch lost to Stephens County, 28-25, in the season opener, and the Falcons defeated the Indians, 42-21, in the first round of the state playoffs.
Prediction: LAGRANGE. Playing in the familiar surroundings of Callaway Stadium gives the Grangers a slight edge.
FLOWERY BRANCH — Flowery Branch’s offense puts up numbers on the ground that would earn the respect of an old school wing-T coach. The Falcons (11-2) have two bruising running backs and a shifty junior quarterback, Connor Shaw, that is adept at tucking it in and running with the football.
Flowery Branch showed last Friday in the Class AAA state quarterfinals against Baldwin that it could score touchdowns in a hurry by keeping the ball on the ground, but this isn’t your traditional two-back set that tries to win games with a 3-yards-in-a-cloud-of-dust mentality.
This is the Falcons’ version of a multiple spread option, which is predicated on the passing game, often with as many as four wide receivers on the field at a time.
"Everyone knows that we’re based on the spread, but we’ve really become more balanced," Falcons senior running back Daniel Drummond said. "I think it’s good because we can take pressure off of Connor."
Flowery Branch coach Lee Shaw might not have known even this time last year that his ‘Air Raid’ offense would take on such a heavy flavor of the running game. But he had to see the pieces fall into place quickly.
Drummond, a 245-pound Georgia Tech verbal commitment, transferred to Flowery Branch midway through his junior year from West Hall. His presence was felt early and often, including a school record of 245 rushing yards against his former school. He leads the running backs with 818 yards and 10 TDs this year.
"Right away I was impressed with his work ethic and intensity," Flowery Branch’s coach said.
"Daniel really creates a spark with our offense," Connor Shaw said. "When we can establish the running game, it really helps our passing attack."
The Flowery Branch running game has surpassed most expectations with 2,644 yards combined among the top four rushers: Drummond, Imani Cross, Shaw (920 yards, 10 TDs) and Rod Frazier.
Drummond — who is rated No. 15 among the nation’s fullbacks by Rivals.com — is clearly the leader of this group with his combination of size and speed. He turned the tide of Flowery Branch’s state quarterfinal game with 90 yards and three touchdowns to send the Falcons into tonight’s state semifinal against LaGrange.
"He’s not just a powerful back, but he’s also explosive," Lee Shaw added.
But a shoulder separation against East Hall left Flowery Branch playing its final three regular season games without Drummond’s presence in the running game. That’s when Cross took the torch.
"When I got hurt, I told him that the team’s depending on you," Drummond said. "He’s just continued to get better and better."
Cross slowly assimilated to the offense in a limited role before seeing the starting duty against East Hall. He says learning from Drummond’s advice has helped make the transition easier.
"When Daniel got hurt, he told me to go in and play hard," Cross added. "It means a lot to me to be able to contribute to this offense."
Cross spent the final three games of the regular season against East Hall, West Forsyth and Gainesville as the primary running back. He’s risen to the challenge by averaging 5.7 yards per carry this season.
"We brought Imani along slowly," Lee Shaw said. "And he just clicked."
Lee Shaw adds that much of the yardage that the running backs gain is a direct result of the consistency of the offensive line: center Austin Todd, right guard Ben Clark, right tackle Bucky Free, left guard Brandon Keller, and left tackle Jared Crandell, who converted to the offensive line from linebacker.
"Our offensive line are the hardest workers out here," Drummond said.
Flowery Branch’s coach said moving back to the running game has been a slow transition over the past couple of years. In 2006, Shaw said that the Falcons offense was essentially an all-passing attack, as then-quarterback Jaybo Shaw went on to earn Times Area Football Player of the Year honors. Last season, Flowery Branch started to sprinkle in the running game more with the work of Darius Kimbrough.
Don’t get the wrong idea. Flowery Branch still passes the football. Connor Shaw has put up 1,930 yards and 20 touchdowns through the air this season.
But don’t expect the Falcons to abandon their success running the football any time soon.