FLOWERY BRANCH — Billed as a battle between the state’s two best offenses, Gainesville proved that defense does indeed win championships.
Led by A.J. Johnson’s three first-half sacks, the top-ranked Red Elephants held Flowery Branch scoreless in the first half, and scored 35 unanswered points to cruise to a 49-17 win and their second straight Region 7-AAA title Friday at Falcon Field.
Gainesville plays host to Lakeview-Fort Oglethopre (7-3) in the first round of the Class AAA state playoffs next Friday at Bobby Gruhn Field.
Flowery Branch visits Ridgeland (9-1) at 7:30 p.m. next Friday for the first round of the playoffs.
"This feels great," Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said of winning another region title. "Anytime you can win a championship it feels good."
Especially when that championship is delivered by a defense that Flowery Branch coach Lee Shaw called, "the best his team has faced all year."
"Their offense is good, but their defense is what prevents things from getting started," Shaw added. "We couldn’t block A.J. He caused havoc all night."
After hearing that the opposing coach called him "the truth," Johnson smiled and said he was just doing his job of containing the Falcons quarterback.
"I spied him a lot and we knew we had to keep him contained so he couldn’t do anything," the junior linebacker said. "We had to keep pressure on him and keep him in the pocket."
That pressure led Gainesville (10-0, 5-0 Region 7B-AAA) to a title, but that doesn’t mean the state’s second-highest scoring offense didn’t put on a show.
Gainesville senior quarterback Blake Sims threw for 145 yards, rushed for another 134, and started the first-half scoring barrage with a 17-yard catch off a reverse from Tai-ler Jones.
"That play was definitely something they weren’t expecting," said Jones, who completed the pass on fourth-and-12 from the Falcons’ 17 on Gainesville’s opening possession. "That play really set the tone for the game."
Along with his touchdown pass, Jones had eight receptions for 130 yards and two touchdowns, 104 of those yards coming in the first half.
The Sims and Jones combo might be the catalyst of the Gainesville offense, but fellow senior Tyson Smith contributed mightily against Flowery Branch (7-3, 4-1). Smith, who pitched the ball back to Jones for the touchdown pass to Sims, finished with 138 yards and three touchdowns, including two in the first half.
Smith’s big night on the ground had a lot to do with Gainesville’s game plan, as the Red Elephants rushed the ball 33 times compared to 15 passes.
"We knew we could rush the ball on them," Miller said. "We just kept scoring and scoring and they couldn’t catch us."
While the Red Elephants were dominating on offense, the defense completely shut down a Flowery Branch offense that entered Friday’s game leading the state with a 47.7 points per game scoring average.
"Our defense played super," Miller said. "We shut them down in the first half and almost brought them to a halt."
A lot of that had to do with Johnson and Thomas Sprague manning the middle of the field, which prevented Flowery Branch from getting its offense in sync.
"We tried to do what we usually do, but we couldn’t block them," Lee Shaw said.
Flowery Branch did get its offense going to start the second half, as Connor Shaw led his team on an six-play drive that ended with a 10-yard touchdown run from Imani Cross.
Connor Shaw, who was held to 159 yards on 13 of 22 passing in the first half, finished the game with 329 yards passing and two touchdowns.
But his second-half effort was too little, too late and Gainesville tacked on two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter to seal the win.
"We had something to prove tonight," Sims said. "We’ve been working toward this since last year and we’re going to celebrate and come back Sunday and get back to work."
All that work certainly impressed Flowery Branch’s coach.
"This is the best Gainesville team I’ve seen since I’ve been here," Lee Shaw said. "They certainly have what it takes to make a run in the playoffs."