Class AAA state playoffs
Flowery Branch at Stephens County
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: The Reservation, Toccoa
Records: Flowery Branch (8-2), Stephens County (8-2)
Flowery Branch coach Lee Shaw knew what he was doing when he scheduled his Falcons to play perennial Region 8-AAA power Stephens County in the first game of the 2008 season.
And his comments after that first game, a 28-25 Indians win, told what would be the story of his team’s season and foreshadowed the matchup that will take place at 7:30 p.m. Friday at The Reservation in Toccoa.
"They’ll respond," Shaw said after that Aug. 29 game. "I’m not going to say this is the best thing that could happen because you don’t want to lose, but we can grow from this one.
"And hopefully we’ll get our second chance in the playoffs."
Grow the Falcons did, going 8-1 over the next nine games. And get their second chance they will, this time with the season on the line.
"We played them a pretty good game the first time around," Shaw said, "and we’ve gotten so much better.
"We feel like we’re a little more of a complete team, and on defense we’re playing a lot better than what we played that first game."
The Falcons defense gave up what would be a season-high 28 points to Stephens County, and since then, have allowed 11.3 points per game including a five-game span in which they gave up only 31 total points.
The 178 yards Indians’ quarterback Dacen Cash passed for against Flowery Branch is a distant memory as well.
Over the next nine games, the Falcons gave up more passing yards to only one team, West Hall. A team which boasts the area’s top passer in sophomore Shunquez Stephens, who threw for 364 yards but had only one touchdown in the Falcons 55-7 win.
It should also be noted that where run defense is concerned, the Falcons gave up more yards than the 180 surrendered to the Indians only once, and that was to Johnson, which ran for 184 yards in the Falcons 41-7 win.
"Our defense is quite confident (going into Friday’s game)," said senior defensive back and wide receiver Chris Lipscomb. "We held a great receiving group (in last Friday’s loss to Gainesville) to 69 yards and we did pretty well on the ground also (holding Gainesville to 144 yards).
"Right now we’re confident and just trying to work through this week and get better."
Stephens County’s offense, which averages 24 points per game, will be led by Cash, who has thrown for 1,138 yards on the season and nine touchdowns, and senior running back Ren Teasley.
Teasley missed the first matchup because of an injury, but has since led the way for the Indians on the ground rushing for 1,164 yards and 12 touchdowns.
"He’s a good running back," Shaw said. "He’s a good athlete, but we know what we’ve got to do to stop him.
"We’ve played against some good running backs, some good athletes up to this point, so I don’t think it will be such a shock it isn’t like we haven’t seen anything like that.
"Hopefully we can gang tackle and swarm him as best as possible."
The said completeness of the Falcons would not be so without the vastly improved offense led by quarterback Connor Shaw.
The offense is averaging 34.8 points per game with Shaw coming off arguably his best passing game of the season, a 238-yard performance against Gainesville in the region championship.
On the season, Shaw has passed for 1,271 yards and 13 touchdowns.
In the Aug. 29 game, Stephens County held what has become a potent Falcons’ running game to 85 yards rushing, a season-low for Flowery Branch.
Daniel Drummond, who has 654 yards rushing and seven touchdowns on the season, was held to only 23 yards rushing against the Indians the first time around.
Shaw, who led the team with 43 rushing yards against Stephens County on Aug. 29, averaged 74.2 rushing yards per game for the remainder of the season and boasts seven touchdowns.
Throw in the emergence of freshman Imani Cross, 374 yards rushing and five touchdowns on the season, and it’s clear why Shaw chose to use the word complete when describing his team.
"I think in every area we’ve improved," said Connor Shaw. "I think, especially me, I’ve got some games under my belt at starting quarterback. Our receivers, we’ve got our connection down and our offensive line has improved.
"I think we have our mind right and we’re going to get some revenge against Stephens County."