FLOWERY BRANCH -- For all the talk about the explosive Flowery Branch offense, it's the defense that may be the difference-maker for the Falcons as they march toward another playoff run.
The Falcons defense held high-powered Cameron Johnson and the Clarke Central offense to their lowest point total in four years in an impressive 37-7 victory Friday night in a crucial Region 8-AAAAA contest at Falcons Field.
They sacked the senior quarterback eight times, including five times over a series of three second half possessions, and held him to just 102 combined yards. The defense added a safety in the fourth quarter for good measure.
Flowery Branch coach Chris Griffin said it was as good a performance as his squad has put together in his time at Flowery Branch.
"Our defense is playing really well right now," Griffin said. "Every time we made a mistake our defense stepped up for us. We gave up some yards early but we held them when it counted. One of their best efforts of the year."
The win for the Falcons (7-2, 7-0 Region 8-AAAAA) now sets up a season-ending showdown with cross-town rival Gainesville in two weeks for the region title.
"People have been talking about that game all year, hoping it would come down to it for the region. We both had to take care of business but now we're here," Griffin said. "We're looking forward to it. It should be a great game again."
Flowery Branch allowed just three non-penalty first downs in the second half to the Gladiators (5-3, 4-2) who came into the game averaging just under 30 points a game. They held Johnson to just 12 yards rushing on 10 carries and 90 yards passing.
Senior linebacker Kellen Clark had two of the Falcons sacks and said they are feeling confident as a group.
"When they scored on us we said that was all they were going to get," Clark said. "I think this may be the best (defensive) group while I've been here. We're ready for Gainesville and hopefully we can come out with a win."
While the defense was putting the clamps on the Clarke Central offense, the Flowery Branch offense was having its way with the Gladiators defense.
Jackson McDonald threw a pair of touchdown passes and Jeremiah Goss ran for 114 yards and three touchdowns as the offense churned out 396 total yards.
McDonald finished with 197 yards passing and was nearly flawless after throwing two interceptions in the first quarter. Jemon Randolph had 84 yards receiving on five catches, including one touchdown.
The defenses dominated the game early. Clarke Central picked off a McDonald pass on the third play of the game but the Flowery Branch defense would force a quick three-and-out to get the ball back for the offense.
The Falcons would strike quickly when Goss capped a short 43-yard drive with a 2-yard scoring run for a 7-0 lead. Goss set up the touchdown with a 23-yard yard gallop to the Gladiators 5 two plays earlier.
Flowery Branch would again stop the Gladiators on downs and the offense looked poised to go in for another score. But Clarke Central's T.J. Ellison snagged a tipped pass out of the air at the Gladiators 5 to snuff out the drive.
The teams would trade punts and then Clarke Central finally got its offense going behind Johnson. The tall, lanky senior would cap a solid drive with a 13-yard pass to DeAnthony Vereen to tie the game at 7 early in the second quarter.
Both defenses would again take control until the Falcons reclaimed the lead on a nifty 33-yard screen pass from McDonald to Randolph with just 11 seconds left in the half. Randolph knifed his way through the Gladiators defense and outraced two defenders to the corner of the end zone to give Flowery Branch a 15-7 lead after Cameron Davis converted a two-point conversion.
Clarke Central appeared to have a quick score to open the second half when Johnson connected with Jaquan Dowdy on a 31-yard TD pass on the third play of the half. But it was called back on an ineligible man downfield penalty. That would be as close as they would get to the end zone until the final play of the game.
The Falcons would stop them on downs and then take control on the game. They would use 11 plays and nearly four minutes, capping a 69-yard drive with a beautiful 31-yard touchdown pass from McDonald to Cameron Davis in the corner of the end zone for a 22-7 lead after a Will Filson extra point with 6:38 left in the third quarter.
On the Gladiators next play, the Falcons forced a fumble and recovered at the Clarke Central 17. Five plays later Goss would score his second touchdown of the game on a 1-yard dive to give the Falcons a 29-7 lead.
The Falcons defense added a safety early in the fourth quarter and Goss would score his third touchdown of the game capping the ensuing drive with a 1-yard run for a 37-7 lead with 5:14 left in the game.
Clarke Central mounted a late drive in the fourth quarter but it would end with the Falcons' Cortez Davis picking off an Aakeem Wise pass in the end zone. Wise came into the game in the final two minutes after Johnson was knocked out of the game on two big hits on consecutive plays.
CLARKE CEN.....0....7....0....0 -- 7
FL. BRANCH......7....8....14...8 -- 37
FB -- Goss 2 run (Filson kick) 7-0, 7:55
CC -- Vereen 13 pass from C. Johnson (Ward kick) 7-7, 10:32
FB -- Randolph 33 pass from McDonald (C. Davis run) 15-7, 0:11
FB -- C. Davis 31 pass from McDonald (Filson kick) 22-7, 6:38
FB -- Goss 1 run (Filson kick) 29-7, 5:07
FB -- Z. Smith safety 31-7, 8:27
FB -- Goss 1 run (kick failed) 37-7, 5:14