GAINESVILLE — It all came down to this: A fourth quarter Gainesville comeback fueled by resiliency and capitalizing on opportunities.
The result: A 27-13 win for the fifth-ranked Red Elephants over Flowery Branch on Friday night at City Park and a Region 7-AAA title.
"I know they all feel good," Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. "But right now none feel better than this one.
"I’ve seen these guys, last year you know, people kind of doubted them and doubted ’em all summer. And they just came back in here and played ... played their hearts out."
With the win and the school’s 23rd region title, Gainesville (10-0, 5-0) secures the No. 1 seed out of Region 7-AAA and will play host to the No. 4 seed out of Region 8-AAA Oconee County at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
The loss moved Flowery Branch (8-2, 4-1) down to the third seed out of Region 7-AAA and set up a rematch with Stephens County, the No. 2 seed out of Region 8-AAA.
The Indians (8-2, 6-1) beat the Falcons 28-25 in the first game of the season on Aug. 29.
Down 13-7 heading into the fourth quarter, Gainesville capitalized on a facemask penalty by Flowery Branch and two Falcons’ turnovers to score 20 unanswered points.
Blake Sims led the way with two touchdown runs to snatch the region title from a Flowery Branch team that had led the entire game to that point.
"Our guys have been a great unit all year," Miller said. "They have stayed together, and no matter how bad things get, they hang in there."
Despite the Falcon defense holding Sims to a season-low 78 yards rushing and 69 passing while sacking him four times, the quarterback was the difference in the game.
"I told everybody we’d go 10-0 and look what happened," Sims said.
Devon Pierce was the team’s second leading rusher with 47 yards on nine carries.
Flowery Branch got on the board first thanks to a Gainesville punt that was blocked by Cory Sanderson and recovered by Matt Bell at the Gainesville 17-yard line.
The Gainesville defense had its back against the wall but allowed only a Will Monday 37-yard field goal.
Neither team would score again in the first quarter but both would find the end zone in the second.
Gainesville answered the call of a deficit by scoring on its first drive of the second quarter.
A 17-yard pass from Sims to A.J. Johnson set up a 25-yard touchdown run by Sims who, after getting flushed out of the pocket and almost sacked, scrambled his way to the 2-yard line and went airborne, stretching the ball just inside the left corner of the end zone.
Flowery Branch quickly quieted the frenzied Gainesville crowd, however. On its ensuing possession, two plays in, Falcons quarterback Connor Shaw hit Rodney Young in stride for a 67-yard score.
Shaw finished with a game high 238 yards passing and was the Falcons’ leading rusher with 87 yards.
Young was the team’s leading receiver with three catches for 74 yards. Imani Cross added two catches for 55 yards and Chris Lipscomb who had two catches for 45 yards.
The offenses stayed quiet for the remainder of the first half despite multiple scoring opportunities for the Falcons.
After a 38-yard attempt failed for the Falcons, Greg Palmer intercepted a Sims pass to give his team the ball back at the Gainesville 32-yard line.
Gainesville’s defense once again held, this a little stronger, as a botched snap on a field goal attempt left Flowery Branch with only a 10-3 lead and Gainesville with the momentum.
Both the Gainesville and Flowery Branch defenses made scoring difficult in the third quarter. The Falcons were able to come out with one more field goal by Billy Thompson from 28 yards.
Down by a touchdown going into the fourth quarter, Gainesville running back Teryan Rucker and Sims took over.
"I was just thinking don’t put your head down, keep your head up and something good will happen," Sims said. "And look what happened."
Rucker led off Gainesville’s second scoring drive of the game with a 30-yard kickoff return. A facemask penalty on Rucker by the Falcons gave Gainesville the ball on the Falcons’ 45-yard line.
Seven plays later, Sims ran it in from 16 yards to give his team the first lead.
A Falcons’ fumble on their ensuing possession only led to more trouble for Flowery Branch. Three plays later, after a Sims to T.J. Jones 32-yard hookup, Rucker scored from the 1 to make the score 21-13.
Flowery Branch’s next drive looked promising until Johnson intercepted a Shaw pass at the Gainesville 6-yard line and returned it 46 yards.
Johnson led Gainesville’s defense with 13 tackles and one interception. Josh Jackson had 10 tackles, three for a loss and one sack.
"It brought us up," Johnson said of his interception, "and kept us going for the rest of the game.
"I just hustled to the ball and it fell right in my hands and I was determined to go, but I got a little tired. I got the ball back for the offense, though."
Two plays later, Sims broke off his longest run of the game, 51 yards, to score Gainesville’s final touchdown and give his team the region title.
"Blake’s a player," Miller said. "I went over to him and said, ‘Look you may need to get this team on your back right here, we’re struggling a little bit throwing the football.’
"He said, ‘Coach, I’ll do it with my legs,’ and that’s exactly what he did."
Despite the Gainesville win, Flowery Branch held Gainesville to only 69 yards passing.