FLOWERY BRANCH -- Flowery Branch coach Chris Griffin warned that Stephenson football was more than just a collection of talented athletes.
On Friday the Jaguars showed just that, relying on defense and a punishing ground game to take a 27-7 win over Griffin's Falcons in the first round of the Class AAAAA playoffs in Flowery Branch.
"They executed better than us tonight and just didn't make mistakes," Griffin said. "And we just didn't respond when they got up on us there early."
Mistakes played a big role in helping turn the game in Stephenson's favor, as the Jaguars scored the first touchdown of the game at the end of the first quarter on an interception return. It was part of three turnovers on the night for the Falcons.
Stephenson, meanwhile, fumbled five times but lost none. Yet it was the Jaguars defense that perhaps made the biggest difference, stonewalling the Falcons rushing attack, as Flowery Branch rushed for just nine yards on 14 carries.
"We expected a very physical game out of both teams, and that's what we got; we just got enough big plays to make a difference," Stephenson coach Ron Gartrell said. "We weren't looking to make a statement; we just wanted to play our brand of football and be successful."
The Jaguars brand included a bruising rushing attack, led by running back Dallas Rivers, who carried for 73 yards and two touchdowns to pace 158 total yards rushing.
None of those yards came easy, as the Falcons defense battled throughout and allowed just 188 total yards.
"I'm proud of the defense; they played hard tonight," Griffin said. "I thought we took away a lot of what they wanted to do."
Certainly the Jaguars returned the favor, however, stuffing Flowery Branch's ground game and never allowing Jackson McDonald much time to throw, as the senior finished 17 of 34 for 173 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
The touchdown pass, an 18-yard strike to Justin Thomson, came with 2:22 left to play, as the Falcons (7-4) watched their season come to an end.
Stephenson started gaining traction late in the first quarter, moving into field goal range on a 37-yard run from Rivers. And while the Falcons defense kept the Jaguars out of the end zone, Stephenson placekicker Wisdom Nzidee staked the visitors to a 3-0 lead on a 27-yard field goal -- after an initial 32-yard attempt was negated by a penalty.
"He's been kicking like that for a long time," Gartrell said.
The Jaguars offense never really took over, gaining just 107 yards in the first half, but Stephenson's defense made the difference, allowing just 82 yards to the Falcons and -- most importantly -- forcing two turnovers.
The first gave the Jaguars a 10-0 lead when Khalil Ladler intercepted a pass and ran untouched 27 yards as the first quarter expired.
"That was huge, and I didn't even know if Ladler was going to play tonight," Gartrell said. "He didn't practice all week, and tonight he had that interception, a long punt return and he forced a fumble there late. He's a playmaker."
Cameron Glenn then came up with another pick on the Falcons first possession of the second quarter. Yet Flowery Branch's defense fought back, forcing a 45-yard field goal attempt that fell short.
The Falcons couldn't stop Stephenson for long, however, as a short Flowery Branch punt set up a 24-yard touchdown run from Rivers -- the back breaking two tackles en route to a 17-0 lead with 6:24 left in the half.
Rivers kept his legs churning in the second half as well, rumbling eight yards into the end zone for a 24-0 advantage with 5:07 left in the third quarter. Wisdom then added a 35-yard field goal with 7:57 left to play, and though the Falcons kept battling, time eventually ran out on their 2013 campaign.
Stephenson.........10....7....7....3 -- 27
Flowery Branch....0....0....0....7 -- 7
SHS -- Nzidee 37 field goal 3:51, 3-0
SHS -- Ladler 27 interception return (Nzidee kick) :00, 10-0
SHS -- Rivers 24 run (Nzidee kick) 6:24, 17-0
SHS -- RIvers 8 run (Nzidee kick) 5:07, 24-0
SHS -- Nzidee 35 field goal 7:57, 27-0
FBHS -- Thomson 18 yard pass from McDonald (Filson kick) 2:22, 27-7