FLOWERY BRANCH — The Flowery Branch offense had been doing just fine without injured senior running back Jaizen Ellingham, who had missed most of the last three games.
But with him, well, thoughts of deep playoff runs can easily be conjured up.
Ellingham returned to the Falcons lineup Friday and showed just what is possible as he ran for 222 yards and four touchdowns, none bigger than his final score in the second overtime to lift Flowery Branch to a thrilling, and much-needed, 42-35 win over North Oconee in a huge Region 8-4A showdown at Falcons Field.
But it was the work of a tiring defense on the Titans’ final drive that preserved the win. The Falcons defense sacked North Oconee quarterback and Clemson-commit Bubba Chandler on the first play of the second OT and then forced three straight incompletions.
“That was a huge stop for us,” Flowery Branch coach Ben Hall said. “We were having trouble getting a rush on him most of the night but we did a great job on that last drive. Tremendous effort by those guys.”
Chandler still passed for 295 yards and a pair of touchdowns but the Falcons defense stifled the Titans’ ground game, holding them to just 99 yards rushing.
The work of Ellingham and Miles Ivey (68 yards rushing), balanced with the passing of quarterback David Renard, who led Class 4A in passing for most of the first half of the season, gives the Falcons the balance they want on offense. Renard was a modest 12-of-19 for 160 yards Friday but he tossed a pair of TDs in the fourth quarter, including a 50-yard bomb to Connor Larson and a 5-yard TD pass to Sal Sengson two minutes later.
But in the overtime periods, Renard scored on a 5-yard run on a do-or-die 4th-and-1 and Ellingham’s run gave them the lead.
“We felt like we had to establish the run game to keep the ball out of (Chandler’s) hands,” Hall said. “It was a gut-check for us in overtime because both our running backs were beat up. They did a great job.”
It was a crucial game for both teams. The win keeps the Falcons (4-2, 1-1 Region 8-4A) alive for a top seed in the region. Their only region loss was to No. 2 Jefferson while the Titans (2-5, 2-1 Region 8-4A) still have to take on the powerhouse Dragons.
Next week, North Oconee plays host to an improving, and rested, East Hall group while Flowery Branch travels to Cedar Shoals, which lost 49-0 to Jefferson on Friday, in a battle for second place.