The Blitz: Your source for high school football
Gainesville at Flowery Branch
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Falcon Field, Flowery Branch
Radio: 1240-AM, 550-AM
Coaches: Gainesville, Bruce Miller; Flowery Branch, Lee Shaw
Records: Gainesville (9-0, 4-0 Region 7B-AAA); Flowery Branch (7-2, 4-0)
Key players: Gainesville, QB Blake Sims (6-1, 180 Sr.), RB Teryan Rucker (5-9, 180 Sr.), LB Thomas Sprague (6-1, 215 Sr.). Flowery Branch, QB Connor Shaw (6-2, 200 Sr.), RB Imani Cross (6-1, 218 So.), LB Cory Sanderson (6-1, 195 Sr.).
Prediction: GAINESVILLE. The Red Elephants slow the Falcons offensive attack just enough to earn another region title.
For perspective on tonight’s game between Class AAA’s No. 1-ranked Gainesville and 2008 state runner-up Flowery Branch, one stat sticks out as the reason this game has been deemed one of the best matchups in the state not only this week, but this season.
The Falcons (47.4) are averaging more points per game than any other team in the state, the Red Elephants (47.1) sit in the second spot on that list.
Class AAA’s Flowery Branch and Gainesville have the two best offenses in any classification and they will face off tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Falcon Field.
“We’re all excited,” said Flowery Branch coach Lee Shaw about playing host to Class AAA’s No. 1-ranked team and the state’s second-best offense. “This is the type of game that players want to play in and coaches want to coach in.”
Flowery Branch has scored less than 35 points only once this season — a 37-34 loss to North Hall — and has scored 52 or more points four times. In comparison, Gainesville has scored less than 35 twice while also scoring 52 or more four times.
“I’ve never been involved in a game where there’s been as much talent on both sides of the ball as there will be in this game,” said Gainesville coach Bruce Miller of tonight’s game.
“The field’s literally going to be loaded with talent.”
And it starts, for both teams, at the skill positions.
It’s no secret that Gainesville’s Blake Sims (10 rushing touchdowns, 20 passing) and Flowery Branch’s Connor Shaw (37 total touchdowns) have both literally and figuratively run their teams from the quarterback position.
They’re captains, they’re verbal commits to play football at Southeastern Conference universities and they’re nightmares for opposing coverages because of their dual-threat abilities.
But Sims and Shaw aren’t the only reasons the Red Elephants and Falcons matchup is marquee.
The two running backs, Flowery Branch’s Imani Cross and Gainesville’s Teryan Rucker, have combined for 24 touchdowns and 1,807 yards rushing this season and take up two of the top-four spots in the list of the area’s best.
Gainesville’s Tai-ler Jones and Flowery Branch’s Rodney Young, both wide receivers, each average 17.4 yards per reception and have accounted for 21 touchdowns combined.
“This is a first really,” Shaw said. “We had a lot of talent last year, but this year...the level of talent at the skill positions is scary.
“The fans on both sides are going to see a show; I know that much for sure.”
However, for as gaudy as the stats are and for as outlandish as the talent may seem, this game isn’t about individual matchups.
At least not to those who will be playing and coaching.
“Practice this week has been a whole different atmosphere,” Miller said. “If we lose, we’re on the road (in the playoffs) after having as good a year as I’ve had since being (at Gainesville).
“Our guys know what’s on the line.”
A Gainesville win means the program’s second straight region title and two guaranteed home games in the first two rounds of the state playoffs, assuming they survive a first round matchup against a No. 4 seed from Region 6-AAA.
“I want these kids to get (a region title) because they have worked since last Dec. for it,” Miller said. “Winning region is important to me because it is important to the kids and they deserve it.”
A Gainesville loss, and North Hall wins the region title, Flowery Branch is second in the region and will have homefield advantage in the playoffs and the Red Elephants will be on the road.
“It’s all about staying hungry and humble,” said Rucker, who’s averaging 8.1 yards per carry. “(Tonight’s) going to be great and there’s nothing better than playing on a big stage, but for us the playoffs begin tonight and we don’t want to lose in the playoffs.”
It goes without saying that the key to winning for both teams will be stopping the other. That, however, is easier said than done as evidenced by the fact that no opponent has yet. “They have weapons,” Miller said, “and as long as they have No. 14 (Shaw) running around back there, they are never out of a play.
“He a great improvisor and the scary thing is that about the time you get him figured out, he hands it off to Cross.”
Working in Gainesville’s favor is a defense — understated because of the production of the offense — that is allowing only 5.7 points per game and has five shut outs on the season.
Led by Thomas Sprague (115 tackles), A.J. Johnson (101 tackles) and Graham Simmons (81 tackles, 12 for a loss and five sacks), only one team has scored more than two touchdowns against Gainesville and that was White County on Sept. 11, the third game of the season.
“Everybody we have on this team goes 110 percent,” said Rucker of his Gainesville squad. “The stats look good, but it’s all about winning at Gainesville and that’s where the defense comes in.”
On the other side, Flowery Branch’s defense hasn’t been quite as dominating as Gainesville’s.
The Falcons give up an average of 23 points per game and have struggled mightily against teams with run-first offenses, evidence by two losses (Creekview and North Hall) and giving up 51 points to a team (West Forsyth) and 346 yards rushing to a single player (Ben Emert) in a 54-51 win against the Wolverines.
“I don’t know that you can stop a team like Gainesville,” Shaw said. “But we’ve got to find a way to slow them down.
“That’s all we’ve talked about is slowing them down. If we can bend and not break, run to the ball and rally hard, then we have a chance. We had a really good, physical off week of practice and we understand that it’s going to hinge on our defense. They’ve got to play well and know it and as a result I know our kids are going to play hard — they are ready.”