Sunday May 29th, 2016 4:05AM

Falcons and Red Elephants expect another photo finish (Video)

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
GAINESVILLE -- If this one doesn't quicken your pulse -- even just a little -- you're simply not a football fan.

Tonight's Flowery Branch at Gainesville showdown has all the elements necessary for a successful Hollywood script:

-- An emotional rivalry

-- Two outstanding teams

-- A slew of standout players

-- Revenge vs. establishing a streak

-- And, most importantly, a championship on the line

And if last year's game is any indication, we could be in for a showdown that generally only happens on celluloid.

(NOTE: TO watch a video preview of the Flowery Branch at Gainesville showdown, simply click "play" in the box to the right.)

Last year's game certainly belonged on the big screen. And it will be very hard to out-do the 35-34 outcome for excitement and drama -- though Red Elephants fans might disagree after watching the Falcons hold on for a last-minute win and the Region 8-AAAAA crown.

Yet coaches and players alike expect another fight to the finish when the two rivals meet up at City Park.

"I think it's going to be a huge game atmosphere -- all the ingredients are there for something special," Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. "Let's see if we can make it happen."

"This is why you play the game; you try to get to a point to set yourself up for a region championship," Flowery Branch coach Chris Griffin said. "It means a lot to both schools, and it's exciting to be in this position and have the opportunity to bring another region championship home."

Adding to the anticipation on both sides is that all involved have seen this coming for weeks, if not months.

They are the two dominant teams in 8-AAAAA -- both 7-0, winning games by an average margin of 39 points between them -- and they have been on a collision course since the schedule was released.

And despite early season setbacks for both, each feels it is playing into its best form at just the right time.

"We're playing as good as we've played. We're getting better every week, and the thing is we've yet to peak," said Flowery Branch quarterback Jackson McDonald, who has passed for 1,484 yards, rushed for a team-high 516 yards and compiled 27 touchdowns "Who knows what we're capable of? We don't know what we're capable of."

Gainesville linebacker Devan Stringer has also seen his teammates make strides in each week.

"I think we're definitely continuing to get better," said Stringer, who . "I don't think we've hit our peak. We're trying to start hitting our peak as the season gets later. What we really want is to hit our peak for the state championship game."

As the Red Elephants proved last season, a loss in this contest does not mean the end of the road for either squad, as Gainesville went on to claim its first ever GHSA championship. But neither team wants to think about finishing second this time around.

"We definitely want to get it real bad," said Stringer, who is second on the team with 98 tackles. "That's our No. 1 goal this year, because a state championship game is not guaranteed. This region championship game is a guarantee -- it's not guaranteed we're going to win, but it's definitely there for the taking."

To take it, both sides acknowledge they will need their best performance yet, and that could be special indeed considering that both teams have excelled on both sides of the ball -- yet perhaps the most intriguing match-up will be Gainesville's high-flying offense, which averages 51.5 points per game, against an athletic and stout Flowery Branch defense that is yielding just over 11 points per region contest.

"I think their defense is as good as it was last year," Miller said about the Falcons. "They don't have as many big names as last year, but you take all the nervousness and the game situation, and I think it's going to be huge. Chris (Griffin) is defensive minded, and I'm sure he's spent time dissecting us and has a great gameplan, and we're just going to have to go in there and execute."

Griffin is more than wary of the Red Elephants and senior quarterback Deshaun Watson -- the state's all-time leading passer, who has thrown for 2,546 yards and 33 touchdowns so far, against just three interceptions.

"It's a very scary offense. Their quarterback is as good as any I've ever seen. And he's a good manager of the game, not just a phenomenal athlete, and he doesn't make mistakes," Griffin said of the Clemson-bound Watson. "And if you try to stop him there's a slew of other athletes around him that can burn you."

That includes running back Michael Byrd (team-high 785 yards rushing, 11 TDs; 472 yards receiving, 2 TDs) and receivers Jay Gaudlock (team-high 902 yards receiving, 11 TDs), Rodney Lackey (606 yards, 9 TDs) and Chastin Newman (424 yards, 5 TDs) -- who lead a team that features seven players that have caught TD passes.

Yet the Falcons are by no means easy to slow on offense, and the Red Elephants face a tough task against a balanced Flowery Branch attack that has rushed for 1,903 yards and passed for 1,489 yards. McDonald's top targets have been Cameron Davis (486 yards, 6 TDs) and A'lencio Graham (418 yards, 3 TDs), while Jeremiah Goss (464 yards rushing, 7 TDs) and Jemon Randolph (460 yards, 3 TDs) have made for an explosive tandem at running back.

And there is that offensive line.

"That offensive line keeps me clean, and they drive off the ball," said McDonald, who says his team has prepped hard for a Gainesville defense that is allowing just 13 points per game. "They're fast, and, like I said, our boys up front will handle their blitzes, and I expect to be clean just like I have been."

While avoiding grass stains is not the goal for every player, both teams know that playing cleanly will be a key.

"Think team that doesn't make mistakes and capitalizes on the other team's mistakes will be in the position to win in the end," Griffin said. "I hope that it's a close game -- I know that may sound odd. And I would love for it to be a blow out on our part, but I know better than that. Gainesville's too good, and I think it's going to come down to the fourth quarter and who's got the ball last."

Miller too is expecting another photo finish.

"I see it coming down to the wire, just like last year," Miller said. "They've got a very good football team. We've got a very good football team. And I think it's going to come down to who makes the plays in the game and who gets the momentum turned their way."

It should make for great theater.

-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m.
-- WHERE: City Park, Gainesville
-- RADIO: 102.9 FM/1240 AM
-- FLOWERY BRANCH (7-2, 7-0 Region 8-AAAAA): Bye last week after defeating Clarke Central 37-7 on Oct. 25.
-- GAINESVILLE (8-1, 7-0 Region 8-AAAAA): Defeated Loganville 63-0 last week. The Red Elephants are ranked No. 3 in Class AAAAA.
-- HISTORY: Flowery Branch won the last meeting 35-34 in 2012. Gainesville leads the series 7-3. It is a short but explosive series that includes a state semifinal meeting (which the Red Elephants won) in 2009.
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