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Posted: Saturday, November 10th 2012 at 2:42am

McDonald, defense rally Falcons to first region title

By Jeff Hart Staff
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Gainesville's Jay Gaudlock takes on a Flowery Branch defender on Friday night in Flowery Branch. / photo: David Weikel
FLOWERY BRANCH – First-year Flowery Branch quarterback Jackson McDonald said it took a few games before he realized he could play with the big boys.

He proved Friday night that he can now BEAT the big boys.

McDonald engineered a 95-yard, Denver Broncos-like drive with four minutes left to give the Falcons their first lead and then watched as the defense stuffed a Gainesville two-point conversion with 2:05 left to preserve a thrilling 35-34 win and claim the Region 8-AAAAA title at Falcon Field.

“I’m going to die of a heart-attack at 16 if we don’t find a way to win games easier,” the right-handed, fleet-footed junior said afterwards while holding the championship trophy. “I’ve become more confident and the team has too and it’s just great to be able to do this with these guys. But these comebacks are killing me!”

It’s the first region title for the Falcons (8-2, 8-0 in region) despite nearly a decade of excellence that saw them play for one state title.

“It’s a great feeling for the kids, the school, and the community,” Flowery Branch coach Chris Griffin said. “I am so proud of the kids for not quiting and believing despite a slow start. Now we can just get ready for the playoffs.”

The Falcons trailed the entire game and by as many as 14 points three separate times until The Drive, which began after just the second punt of the game for Gainesville.

McDonald would connect on two passes over 30 yards, the first on a 31-yard strike to Darius Curry on a key third down to get them out of the shadow of their own end zone, and then a second for 33-yards to Cameron Davis, who managed to drag one foot down at the Gainesville 10 on an acrobatic catch. A penalty would push the Falcons back to the 20 but McDonald found Jamaad Stephens in the back of the end zone for a 35-28 lead two plays later.

“Jackson just played phenomenal,” Griffin said. “He wants to win so bad and the guys have really rallied around him. We had to make some plays and we did. The defense was huge for us down the stretch.”

The Red Elephants (7-3, 6-2) did not go quietly. Highly-recruited junior quarterback Deshaun Watson engineered his own drive for the Elephants connecting on three critical passes, including a 19-yard bullet to Rodney Lackey with 2:05 left to pull Gainesville to within 35-34.

Gainesville coach Bruce Miller then called for the two-point conversion. Both teams would trade timeouts, and then Watson was stopped by a swarm of Falcons on a handoff while looking to pass effectively sealing the win.

“There’s always regret when things don’t work out, but we felt like we had something that would work. They called timeout and that kind of changed things but we went with it anyway. (Flowery Branch) just made a play,” Miller said. “They are a tremendous second half team and they showed that again. But it’s disappointing because we really wanted to win this game.”

The loss for Gainesville was its second straight coming down the stretch and Miller said they will have little time to fret about it.

“I think we’re playing okay right now but we have to put this behind us. We don’t have any time to feel sorry for ourselves and no one else is either,” he said. “We had the momentum early but we had a turnover in the second half and that gave them some life.”

The Falcons trailed 28-14 after a beautiful 18-yard touchdown run by Watson midway through the third quarter. But they struck back quickly getting a 59-yard pass from McDonald to Stephens to set up a 1-yard scoring run by McDonald. Three plays later, the Elephants opened the door for the Falcons comeback.

Flowery Branch’s Jacob Allen recovered a muffed pitch by Watson and then Justin Curry would tie the game at 28 six plays later on a 6-yard run.

“The fumble was huge for us because we needed the defense to make a play to give us a chance and they did that. They gave up some points but really they made the key plays for us,” Griffin said.

After allowing three touchdowns in the first 22 minutes, the Falcons defense stiffened in the second half allowing just two scores while the offense got untracked with 28 second half points.

While both offenses sputtered in the first quarter, the Gainesville defense made the first big play of the game. A sloppy pitch between the Falcons’ Darius Curry and McDonald resulted in Brenquez Dukes snatching the bouncing ball out of the air and returning it 37-yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter.

The Red Elephants defense then held the Falcons on a three-and-out on their next possession and Watson capped a 68-yard, 8-play drive with a 23-yard pass to Jay Gaudlock for a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter.

The Falcons offense finally got going on its next possession with McDonald accounting for 67 yards and finishing off the 69-yard drive with a 6-yard pass to Davis on 4th-and-goal to cut the lead to 14-7 with 5:47 left in the half.

Flowery Branch looked like it had the momentum recovering the ensuing onside kick but the Gainesville defense again held its ground forcing another three-and-out. Watson then displayed his versatility running for six yards, passing for 27 yards, and then catching a 3-yard touchdown pass on a nifty flea-flicker capping an 82-yard drive for a 21-7 lead. The drive was kept alive on off-setting penalties at the Falcons 3 that instead would have forced a Gainesville fourth down at the Flowery Branch 8 after Watson was sacked.

Watson would finish with 102 yards rushing and one touchdown and was 16-of-31 passing for 222 yards and two touchdowns for Gainesville. Chastin Newman had 57 yards receiving and one touchdown, Caleb Hayman had four catches for 54 yards for the Elephants.

McDonald had a huge game as well for Flowery Branch with 100 yards rushing and two touchdowns and was 18-of-24 for 253 yards and two touchdowns through the air. Stephens was the main go-to guy with seven catches for 138 yards and one score for the Falcons. Justin Curry added 89 yards rushing and one TD for Flowery Branch.

Both teams were sloppy at times combining for nine penalties for 66 yards in the first half. The biggest one was an intentional grounding on McDonald that snuffed out a potential scoring drive for the Falcons in Gainesville territory in the final 90 seconds.

Gainesville finished with 11 penalties for 75 yards while Flowery Branch had nine penalties for 84 yards.

Gainesville......7…....14.......7......6 -- 34
F. Branch.........0..…..7…...14.....14 -- 35

First Quarter
GHS – B. Dukes 37 fumble return (Turner kick) 1:43, 7-0

Second Quarter
GHS – Gaudlock 23 pass from Watson (Turner kick) 10:44, 14-0
FB – David 6 pass from McDonald (Filson kick) 5:47, 14-7
GHS – Watson 3 pass from Gonzalez (Turner kick) 1:56, 21-7

Third Quarter
FB – McDonald 25 run (Filson kick) 8:20, 21-14
GHS – Watson 18 run (Turner kick) 6:10, 28-14
FB – McDonald 1 run (Filson kick) 2:47, 28-21

Fourth Quarter
FB – J. Curry 6 run (Filson kick) 11:14, 28-28
FB – Stephens 20 pass from McDonald (Filson kick) 4:00, 35-28
GHS – Newman 19 pass from Watson (run failed) 2:05, 35-34
Associated Categories: Sports News, High School Sports

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