FLOWERY BRANCH — Clarke Central coach David Perno says his offense just has not been able to muster enough points when it comes to taking on Flowery Branch over the years.
Falcons coach Ben Hall says the Gladiators offense is precisely what concerns him as the two powerhouse programs get set for a huge non-region battle at Billy Henderson Stadium Friday night in Athens.
Flowery Branch leads the series 5-4 overall, all coming since 2010, but owns a 5-1 record when holding the Gladiators to 21 points or less. Clarke Central is 3-0 in the series when scoring more than 21 points. The Falcons have won three of the last four meetings with Clarke Central being held to 14, 14, 44, and 21 points in those four meetings.
“(Flowery Branch) has had our number the last few years,” Perno said. “Their defense gives you a lot of different looks. Our problem has been we just haven’t been able to score in key spots. We have to find a way to match up with their defense.”
The biggest change, and asset for the Gladiators in 2019, according to Hall, may be the addition of former Georgia Bulldog standout Damien Gary, who is now their offensive coordinator. Which should make what was already looking like a titanic showdown between the Gladiators offense and the Falcons defense even more tantalizing.
“Coach Gary has really brought a different look to their offense,” Hall said. “After watching them on film I’m not sure if we can stop them. They have speed at every skilled position and move the ball around to a lot of guys. They are explosive.”
Clarke Central is led by running back O'Brien Bennett, who had 135 yards in last week’s 28-21 win over Oconee County. Quarterback Isaac Ward was 9-of-12 passing for 3 TDs and 214 yards and wide receiver Jalen Gary had 6 catches for 115 yards and 2 TDs.
The Flowery Branch defense pitched its first shutout in nearly a year two weeks ago against East Hall. The Falcons will counter with a solid linebacking group, led by senior Connor Mayfield and juniors Jerzee Allentini and Jaizen Ellingham, along with an experienced secondary led by seniors Taylor Reves, Chase Watson, and Chandler Watson, and juniors Connor Larson and Douglas Pena.
While that battle will certainly draw plenty of attention from fans, the Branch offense, now led by sophomore quarterback David Renard, is getting its own makeover. Renard is more of a dual-threat under center than Elijay Gainey, who was lost for the season just days before the season-opener, which has prompted Hall and his staff to make some changes as well.
The Gladiators are yielding 28.6 points a game on defense so far on the young season. The Falcons put up 50 on the Vikings in their opener two weeks ago in Renard’s first-ever start.
“David is a very smart guy and understands the game very well,” Hall said. “But he’s a different kind of player than Elijah, who is more of a pure pocket-passer guy. David is more mobile so we may move the pocket around, give him some bootleg opportunities, and use more play-action."
Renard has plenty of options behind a very good offensive line. Ellingham will get the bulk of the work in the backfield while Renard will have seniors Grant Lackey, Pena and Owen Warbington, juniors Larson and Ryan Lusco, and sophomore Jahiem Hayes to throw to.
“We’ve liked what we’ve seen so far in practice. But I don’t know if a shootout plays to our advantage. We’re still a work-in-progress on offense with all the changes," Hall said.
Despite the outcome, however, both coaches say they welcome these early-season showdowns.
“These kinds of games really sharpen you for the playoffs,” Perno said. “I love these kinds of games. But we’re going to have to play our best to have a chance.”
Hall, who will be making his first-ever trip to the iconic Billy Henderson Stadium, said it is a game he has been looking forward to as a coach.
“This will be the first time I’ve been there and it’s kind of like the Granite Bowl (in Elberton). You want to go play and/or coach in those kind of atmospheres,” he said. “Billy Henderson Stadium is one of those places you hear about. We’re all looking forward to it.”
FLOWERY BRANCH at CLARKE CENTRAL
-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m.
-- WHERE: Death Valley Field at Billy Henderson Stadium, Athens
-- FLOWERY BRANCH (1-0, 0-0 Region 7-4A): Off last week; defeated East Hall 50-0 two weeks ago
-- CLARKE CENTRAL (2-0, 0-0 Region 8-5A): Defeated Oconee County 28-21 last week
-- NOTABLE: Flowery Branch leads series 5-4. The Falcons won 28-14 in 2018. The two teams have met each season since 2010 and The Branch has won two straight in the series. ... This is the first meeting in Athens since 2016. ... Clarke Central is 15-3 at home under David Perno. The Falcons are 8-4 on the road under Ben Hall.