COLUMBUS — On third-and-25 with nine minutes left in the game and the score 33-21, it looked like Flowery Branch’s season and playoff run was finally over.
But don’t ever count out these Falcons, who have been in similar tight spots before and rallied to pull out a 35-33 win over Carver in Friday’s Class AAA state playoff quarterfinal at Memorial Stadium in Columbus.
With the win, Flowery Branch (10-3) makes its second straight trip to the semifinals, where it will face Gainesville at 7:30 p.m. next Friday at Bobby Gruhn Field.
"I’m speechless," said Flowery Branch coach Lee Shaw, whose team scored the game’s final 14 points. "I mean, what do you say? ... I’ve never seen a team respond and battle the way this team did."
Down 12 and facing a key third down, Logan Conley caught a 28-yard pass from Connor Shaw to keep alive a Falcons’ scoring drive that narrowed the score to 33-28.
Then on fourth-and-5 with just under seven minutes left and the score 33-28, it again looked like the Falcons’ season was over. But Robbie Boudreau, on his back after being tackled, caught a 6-yard pass from Shaw who was hit as he threw.
And then finally, on fourth-and-8 from the Carver 26-yard line with less than a minute to play, it again looked bleak for the Falcons. But Shaw found Boudreau at the 1-yard line for another clutch first down to set up the winning score.
"I wheeled, I was open and Connor (Shaw) threw a perfect ball," Boudreau said. "We showed a lot of heart tonight and our team chemistry really brought us through."
Three plays later, with 30 seconds to play, Shaw scored on a 1-yard run — his fourth rushing touchdown of the game – to give the Falcons the lead.
"We were fourth-and-26 at West Forsyth from being 6-4 and never seeing this moment," Shaw said of his team’s 54-51 win on Oct. 23. "This team just found a way to make plays."
Flowery Branch led 14-7 going into halftime thanks in part to a defense that stopped Carver (11-2) twice on fourth down in three possessions. Carver’s lone score of the first half came when the Falcons fumbled on their own 11. Three plays later, the Tigers were on the board on a 5-yard run by Isaiah Crowell.
Shaw was 8-of-8 passing for 94 yards while rushing for 20 yards and two touchdowns by halftime. He finished the game 18-of-27 passing for 242 yards and one touchdown while rushing for 65 yards and four scores.
Carver, led by junior running back Crowell, showed its explosiveness at the start of the second half.
Three plays into its first possession, Carver tied the score on a 48-yard run by Crowell. After making Flowery Branch punt for the first and only time, Crowell scored on a 98-yard run to give his Tigers their first lead.
Crowell finished with 19 carries for 254 yards.
The Tigers weren’t done after making it 21-14. A Corey Crawford interception and 37-yard return on Flowery Branch’s next possession set up another Carver score, Devin Lewis’ 3-yard run, making it 27-14 with 57 seconds left in the third quarter.
The missed extra point attempt and Carver’s missed 2-point conversion attempt after its next score proved to be the difference.
"We were mismatched in athleticism," Shaw said. "But you can’t overlook heart and that’s what makes high school football what it is."
That heart began to show on the Falcons’ third possession of the half, an 80-yard, two-minute drive capped by a 44-yard pass from Shaw to Rodney Young. In that drive, Flowery Branch converted on a third-and-4, with a 9-yard pass from Shaw to Darius Kimbrough, and a fourth-and 3, on a 3-yard run by Shaw.
Carver came right back, scoring on two plays when Lewis ran 89 yards to make it 33-21 with nine minutes left. Lewis finished with 9 carries for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
Flowery Branch answered by driving 65 yards on 11 plays, capped by a 15-yard touchdown by Shaw to pull within five.
Then came the call of the game with 6:48 left in the game, when the Falcons tried an onside kick. Will Monday placed it perfectly, Flowery Branch recovered at the 50, and after four third-down conversions, two fourth-down conversions and 14 plays, the Falcons had the lead and the game.
"You’ve got to know yardage and try not to get sacked," Connor Shaw said of his team’s bevy of late conversions. "I honestly just tried to avoid the sacks and toss the ball up and, boy, did my receivers make some incredible plays."
Carver drove to the Falcons’ 26 in 26 seconds on its last possession. On the final desperation pass, Shaw tipped it in the end zone and Mykah Hester came down with the interception.
"God was looking down on us and clearly wanted us to win this game," Connor Shaw said. "This game was just a huge blessing for us."
Imani Cross finished as the team’s leading rusher and workhorse with 23 carries for 107 yards.
"What a momentum rush for us," coach Shaw said. "If we don’t play (Gainesville) with a lot of confidence I’ll be surprised."