FLOWERY BRANCH — A glint flashed in Myles Janess’s eyes, but the Flowery Branch senior responded in measured fashion.
“Obviously we're going to have to play our best game, maybe a perfect game,” when asked what his team needed to do in order to claim the Region 8-AAAAA title on Friday — against Buford, a team gunning for its 28th region title as a stepping stone to what it hopes will be its 11th straight state championship game appearance.
“You always have to respect your opponent -- but Buford you know they're good. You know they're a state contender every year; you can't take that away from them,” Janess continued. “But also you can't be a coward just because of their green and gold jerseys, just because of their big name on their chest.”
That Janess uttered those comments with conviction speaks volumes about his own Falcons program these days.
While the Wolves (7-1, 5-0 Region 8-AAAAA) entered 2017 with sky-high expectations — despite a coaching change — few knew what to expect of the Branch, including first-year Falcons coach Ben Hall.
“They'd been a fragile bunch,” said Hall, who inherited a program that went 3-7 in 2016 and had not even reached the postseason since 2013. “We just didn't know -- we said if something goes wrong with this group, how are they going respond? We treaded through that for half the season.”
The Falcons (8-1, 5-0) walk with fear no longer. In fact, the Branch has soared to an 8-1 record and top 10 Class AAAAA ranking, securing at worst the No. 2 seed from Region 8-AAAAA. But after cruising through much of league play, the Falcons are hoping for more when they play for their third region crown on Friday night.
“It's been enjoyable to watch them get better each week,” said Hall, who left a successful stint at Jefferson to join the Branch. “And we feel like we're playing some pretty good football right now. And you think back to spring practice and where we were then and where we are now, the kids have bought in, and they're enjoying a successful season.”
Certainly Buford understands the requirements for success — and coach John Ford knew the heavy expectations to maintain that success when he joined the Wolves following four years at Roswell that included back-to-back state runner-up finishes at Roswell (2015-16).
“Buford's always played great defense; Buford's always played really, really good on offense, special teams, things like that so I'm just trying to maintain those standards and those levels as to what people are used to around here,” said Ford, who has the 2017 Wolves playing very much like the dominant Buford teams of seasons past.
The defense has been downright nasty, yielding just 9.3 points per game and is in the midst of a four-game scoreless streak.
The offense, meanwhile, is scoring 47.3 points per game, rushing for 255.9 yards and passing for 153.1 per game — Tennessee commit Anthony Grant leads all rushers with 596 yards and 14 touchdowns, while Michigan commit Christian Turner has 435 yards and 7 scores. Junior Derrian Brown also has 527 yards and 6 TDs, while freshman quarterback Aaron McLaughlin has 1,015 yards passing and 8 TDs compared to 4 interceptions while completing 56 percent of his passes. Tyler Gillis (247 yards, 5 TDs) and Isaiah Isaac (148 yards, 1 TD) each have 17 receptions for the Wolves.
“They are definitely a physical team, on both lines of scrimmage. And they have tremendous athletes, and they do a great job offensively of getting the balls to athletes in space,” Hall said of Buford. “And then defensively I know that defensive staff, and they've been the standard so long, in the region, for really the last two decades. You look back at Buford's success, and they're a defensive football team, and it's been the standard of the region. And having the opportunity to just give it a shot and have a chance to play for a region championship against a quality team like Buford, it means a lot for our program.”
The Falcons have their shot in large part due to their own physicality on both sides of the ball.
Running backs Malik Damons (1,144 yards rushing, 18 TDs) and Malik Drayton (742 yards rushing, 13 TDs) pace a ground-heavy attack that is has chewed up most opponents, while sophomore quarterback Elijah Gainey (1,139 yards passing, 9 TDs against 5 INTs, 49 percent completion rate) and Jalin Strown (25 receptions, 543 yards, 5 TDs) have provided an aerial counter-point to punish defenses that load up the line of scrimmage. And after averaging just over 18 points per game in 2016, the Falcons are putting up 35.2 in 2017.
Meanwhile, the defense is yielding just 11.6 points per game — as opposed to last season’s 29.1 and has registered 24 sacks.
“They're big up front, and their backs run hard; they run behind their pads; they do a god job with their schemes and their personnel groupings on offense,” Ford said of the Falcons. “Defensively they fly around, they bring a lot of pressure. They're very aggressive, they're very attacking, they get a lot of negative plays. So we've got to make sure we've got to have a good plan and come out and execute Friday night.”
Buford is certainly used to executing in pressure situations at this time of season — though the Wolves believe the foundations of their success are laid in the spring and summer of each season rather than on prior success.
“What really helps us a lot is over the summer when we were doing mat drills and doing all the hard work and drills we do I think gets us ready,” Grant said.
That said, Buford expects the Falcons’ best shot — and the Branch is certainly aiming to do just that.
“You go back to the spring, you go back to last year, it was almost like we really didn't have an identity,” Flowery Branch senior defensive lineman Tyler Williams said. “And when you look at this large group of seniors I feel like we're so tight-knit together — we're just ready.”
After missing out on the playoffs for three straight seasons, there’s plenty of desire ready to pour forth on Friday night.
The same goes for the visitors.
“Everybody's talking about it just because it's the region championship and they're so close,” Wolves junior lineman Harry Miller said. “I mean really, if you live here you either go to Flowery Branch or you go to Buford, so it's fun, and I'm excited and I'm just hoping it's going to be a fun atmosphere.”
GAME of the WEEK
BUFORD at FLOWERY BRANCH
-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
-- WHERE: Falcon Field, Flowery Branch
-- RADIO: WDUN AM 550
-- BUFORD (7-1, 5-0 Region 8-AAAAA): Defeated Loganville 49-0 last week. Wolves are ranked No. 3 in Class AAAAA.
-- BRANCH (8-1, 5-0 Region 8-AAAAA): Bye last week after defeating Clarke Central 32-14 on Oct. 20. Falcons are ranked No. 9 in Class AAAAA.
-- NOTABLE: Buford is playing for its 28th region title, Flowery Branch its third. The loser will finish as the No. 2 seed from Region 8-AAAAA.