FLOWERY BRANCH — Buford found out that if its vaunted ground game gets stalled, freshman quarterback Aaron McLaughlin is more than capable of carrying the offense.
Flowery Branch found out it can expect to be a factor in the upcoming Class AAAAA playoffs.
After a tight 14-7 first half, the Wolves pulled away from the Falcons over the final 24 minutes for a 42-7 victory at Falcons Field to capture the Region 8-AAAAA title.
McLaughlin was 20-of-28 for 299 yards and four touchdown passes and complemented a ground game that pounded out 240 yards. But, when the Falcons defense was able to slow down the Wolves rushing attack, McLaughlin provided a pair of big plays that weren’t touchdowns to help open things up.
“Aaron had a great game. We didn’t plan on throwing it that much but they were stacking the box so we just took what was there,” first-year Buford coach John Ford said.
It was a hard-hitting game for the better part of two quarters as both defenses dictated the action. There were nearly as many combined punts (8) as combined first downs (11) in the first half.
But Buford (8-1, 6-0 Region 8-AAAAA) forced a pair of Falcons punts to open the third quarter and got a 32-yard touchdown pass from McLaughlin to a leaping Isaiah Isaac and then a 27-yard touchdown throw to Tyler Gillis on consecutive possessions to blow the game open.
They then turned to their defense and bigger lines of scrimmage.
Ford said they expected a battle.
“We knew (Flowery Branch) was going to be physical and they were. We saw some things in the third quarter and made some plays,” he said.
McLaughlin added a 17-yard strike to Carson Guy early in the fourth quarter and Christian Turner scored his only touchdown in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach.
Falcons coach Ben Hall said they just ran out of gas against the bigger Wolves.
“We wore down in the second half. Our defense played lights out but it was also on the field way too long in the second half,” Hall said. “I was was real proud of how we generated some momentum late in the first half. But we made some mistakes and you can’t do that against a team like Buford.”
While the game was hard-hitting, it was also sloppy as the two teams combined for 20 penalties for 212 yards. Both teams had scoring plays called back.
The defenses set the tone in the first half but ill-timed penalties on both sides also snuffed out potential drives. However, the Wolves stormed out in the first five minutes ready to take control.
Buford stuffed the Falcons on a quick 3-and-out on the opening drive and then a 5-yard McLaughlin pass to Isaac capped a 10-play drive for a 7-0 lead just over five minutes in.
But the Flowery Branch defense was able to get settled as the teams then exchanged three punts before the Falcons defense stopped the Wolves on downs late in the first quarter. The teams would trade four more punts deep into the second quarter.
But Buford again looked poised to take control as Anthony Grant scored on a 2-yard run one play after a 30-yard scamper for a 14-0 lead with 3:37 left in the first half.
The Falcons, however, grabbed the momentum on their next play when Jalin Strown hauled in a long bomb down the left sideline from Elijah Gainey for an 85-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 14-7 with 3:19 left.
The Falcons nearly got another score seconds later on a pick-6 but Braden Wayne could not hold on to an errant McLaughlin screen pass. A Colby Adams sack of McLaughlin at the Wolves 5 helped force another Buford punt with just 1:57 left.
Flowery Branch quickly moved to the Wolves 32 aided by a pass interference penalty and a 20-yard pass from Gainey to tight end T.J. Goodwin. The Falcons then appeared to tie the game two plays later but a 32-yard touchdown pass from Gainey to D.J. Brown was called back for offensive pass interference.
Buford would eventually hold on downs with 9 seconds left and it went to the half with the Wolves up just 14-7.
Buford committed 8 penalties for 92 yards while the Falcons had 4 for 40 yards in the first half.
Gainey finished 13-of-30 for 207 yards. The Falcons were forced to take to the air more than they are accustomed because the Buford defense shut down the Falcons rushing attack. Malik Damons and Malik Drayton, who were combining for nearly 200 yards a game, were held to 67 yards on 27 carries and no touchdowns.
Flowery Branch (8-2, 5-1) will play host to Kell, the No. 3 seed from Region 7-AAAAA, in the first round next week and Hall said they will need to rebound quickly.
“We have to get some guys healthy who got banged up tonight but I think we’ll find the positives from this and try to get ready for the playoffs,” he said.
Buford will entertain Paulding County at Tom Riden Stadium next week in the first round. Ford said they will begin preparing over the weekend.
"I dont even know who we play so we'll find out and look at some tape and see what we can do," he said.
Christian Turner paced the Buford rushing attack with 133 yards on 20 carries. Grant finished with 90 yards on 10 carries.
Buford..........7.....7....14....14 -- 42
F. Branch......0.....7......0......0 -- 7
B -- Isaac 5 pass from McLaughlin (Olsen kick) 7-0, 6:54
B -- Grant 2 run (Olsen kick) 14-0, 3:37
F -- Strown 85 pass from Gainey (Sanchez kick) 14-7, 3:19
B -- Isaac 32 pass from McLaughlin (Olsen kick) 21-7, 6:45
B -- Gillis 27 pass from McLaughlin (Olsen kick) 28-7, 0:43
B -- Guy 17 pass from McLaughlin (Olsen kick) 35-7, 10:14
B -- Grant 6 run (Olsen kick) 42-7, 3:35