The Buford High football team still rules Region 8-5A.
After holding just a one-score lead at halftime, the third-ranked Wolves used a huge second half to beat No. 9 Flowery Branch 42-7 on Friday night at Falcon Field in Flowery Branch. With the win, Buford (8-1, 6-0 region) captured its fifth-straight region championship and a No. 1 playoff seed, while the Falcons (8-2, 5-1) are locked in to the No. 2 seed.
Buford racked up 334 of its 498 total yards in the second half. Michigan commit Christian Turner led the Wolves’ backfield with 123 rushing yards and a 6-yard score that officially put the game to rest with a little more than three minutes left to play. Tennessee pledge Anthony Grant added 82 yards and a touchdown, while Isaiah Isaac hauled in four catches for 89 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Self-inflicted wounds in a penalty-marred first half plagued the Wolves, but only momentarily. They changed gears to pull away from a physical, hard-nosed Flowery Branch defense.
Buford first-year coach John Ford commended the play of Ben Hall’s much-improved unit and agreed this region title showdown was a big test for his playoff-bound team.
“We knew Flowery Branch would come in here and certainly not give it to us,” Ford said. “(Flowery Branch has) done a good job this year. It was just play hard and play for each other, limited the mistakes.”
The Wolves led 14-7 at halftime before freshman quarterback Aaron McLaughlin orchestrated the second-half outburst with three of his four passing touchdowns. McLaughlin put together touchdown throws of 32, 27 and 17 yards, and his first of the second half was a jump ball between Isaac and a Falcons’ defensive back, which Isaac won when the back judge confirmed the touchdown.
McLaughlin even showcased his elusiveness outside the pocket, sidestepping a charging Falcon defender and firing to a wide open Tyler Gillis to stretch Buford’s lead to 28-7 as 43.9 seconds remained in the third.
For the game, McLaughlin completed passes to 10 different receivers for 299 yards on 20 of 28 attempts.
“People don’t realize he’s a fantastic athlete … the sky’s the limit for him,” Ford said. “He just puts the work in. He put the work in Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and every week until this point.”
Flowery Branch sophomore quarterback Elijah Gainey (13 of 28), who cut Buford’s lead in half just before the break with a deep and beautifully thrown touchdown pass to wideout Jalin Strown for 85 yards, finished with 209 yards. It snapped a 17-quarter scoreless streak held by Buford’s defense heading into the game, which tied a school record.
But Flowery Branch couldn’t find a way to create its own momentum.
The Falcons’ defense dropped two interceptions, while the offense couldn’t find a way to sustain drives and found itself backed deep in its own territory to start almost every possession. The average starting field position for the Falcons was their own 19-yard-line, compared with Buford’s average spot of its own 35-yard line.
The Falcons’ one-two punch of Malik Damons and Malik Drayton in the backfield was held to a combined 63 yards.
“We knew how important they were, and we knew they were gonna try to get those guys going,” Ford said. “Coach Hall has done a really good job over here, so give him a lot of credit. But we just knew we had to play fast and physical, attack the defense and gang-tackle because they are big guys.”
The Wolves also picked off Gainey twice and added a fumble recovery in the second half to stay ahead.
After falling behind 14-0, Gainey and Strown awakened the Falcons faithful one play after a Buford touchdown. Off the play-action, Gainey planted his back foot and lobbed a deep pass to Strown, who caught the ball in stride and left his defender in his rear-view mirror all the way into the end zone for the Falcons’ first and only score of the game.
“(Passing more) just came down to the flow of the game,” Hall said. “They were set on taking away the run, so we had to set them up with that and take some shots. Elijah threw the ball really well tonight.”
Gainey pulled off another big play with a 20-yard completion to senior tight end C.J. Goodwin on third and long during the Falcons’ final drive of the half. The Falcons later turned the ball over on downs to give Buford possession with less than 10 seconds left.
Despite a loss, Flowery Branch is postseason bound for the first time since 2013 and has already clinched at least a first-round home playoff game. The Falcons will host Kell for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff next Friday in Flowery Branch.
The top-seeded Wolves gear up for a run to the state title game for the 11th consecutive season, beginning with four-seed East Paulding next Friday.
“It feels great, but our main focus is going further than this,” said Buford defensive end Brock Mattison. “It’s just the Buford way and the Buford tradition.”