There is a mystique about Marist.
Over the last 36 years, Marist has been one of the best programs in the state and is always in the state title conversation
Flowery Branch knows Marist all too well having tangled with the War Eagles each of the last two seasons for Region 7-4A supremacy. Marist won both, 20-0 in 2018, and 27-0 in 2019.
The fifth-ranked Falcons are seeking to debunk the Marist mystique, and the two-game losing streak, as they travel to No. 1 Marist on Friday in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. and can be heard live on AM 550 WDUN.
“Marist is one of those teams where if they are in your classification and you do things the right way, there’s a good chance that you’re going to lock horns in the playoffs with them because they are always there,” Branch coach Ben Hall said. “They are always one of the teams in 4A that you have to get through in the postseason to have a chance to win it all. Marist is always that team that’s in the conversation in 4A. You can downplay it if you want to, but there’s always a mystique about Marist.”
War Eagles head coach Alan Chadwick has spent his entire head coaching career -- 36 seasons -- building Marist into a perennial state title contender. His resume: 395-73 record, 33 overall playoff appearances, 26 straight, 19 region titles, two state championships, four state finals, nine semifinals, eight quarterfinals, five second round and three first-round – all across two classifications, 3A and 4A.
“Coach Chadwick has been there 36 years, and those kids that decide to attend Marist and play football are riding and deciding that option at an early age,” Hall said. “They are very, very good at what they do.”
Before diving too deep into the matchup, let's hit the rewind button for a minute to 2019. Playing without starting quarterback Elijah Gainey, his season ended with a preseason injury, the Falcons struggled offensively, but still only trailed 7-0 late into the second quarter before the War Eagles added two quick scores with less than a minute to go down 21-0 at the half. The Branch defense held Marist to just one touchdown in the second half. The offensive production was the problem.
But now, things are different in Flowery Branch. The Falcons have the weapons to go shot-for-shot against the state’s No. 1 team with a balanced attack, led by the state’s top passer, junior David Renard, a sure-handed receiving corps and a bruising rushing attack in duo senior Jaizen Ellingham and sophomore Myles Ivey. Oh, and the defense, although not as experienced as the previous two seasons, has gotten increasingly better.
“If you’re going to have success against Marist, you’re going to have to throw the ball,” Hall said. "David has really come along in our offense along with our receiving corps. We are throwing the best we’ve thrown the ball in my four years here, and we’re going to have to be able to do that on Friday.”
The War Eagles defense is only giving up 3 points per game – a Class 4A best -- and will test the Falcons high-flying offense.
“They bring a lot of pressure,” Hall said. “They’re always very, very sound defensively. The thing that sets them apart defensively is the tackling ability of their secondary players. One thing is for sure, if you’re playing defense for Marist, you’re physical and a good tackler. They are very sound and talented.”
The Falcons’ offensive balance is pretty good, though – 2,889 passing yards, 2,080 rushing yards.
Renard has passed for 2,548 yards and 24 touchdowns in a breakout junior season. He has tossed most of those yards to Connor Larson (52-878, 5 TDs), Baxley O’Brien (25-472, 5 TDs) and Ryan Lusco (22-441, 6 TDs). Overall, 13 receivers have caught passes and seven have crossed the goal line.
Ellingham, who has battled injuries this season, leads the Falcons’ ground game with 735 yards on 112 carries and 17 touchdowns, while Myles Ivey had 142 carries for 673 yards and five touchdowns. Renard is the team’s third-leading rusher with 424 yards on 49 rushes and six touchdowns.
Hall says they’ll have to win some 50-50 balls and score in the red zone to have success.
“We have to be able to drive the field and score in the red zone,” he said. “The last two years we’ve been inside the red zone and not come away with points -- now, granted we were behind and didn’t want to settle for field goals -- but when we get in the red zone, we’re going to have score touchdowns. Marist is such a good offensive team as well and does a good job of keeping the ball from you, so every possession is important. We’re going to have to be efficient.”
The War Eagles offense is the fifth-best in Class 4A, averaging 38.6 per game and, as usual, loves to run the ball (301-1945, 29 TDs) out of Chadwick’s option offense.
Lincoln Parker, an Army commit, leads the team with 316 yards and five touchdowns. They’ve had 17 running backs gain yards and 11 have scored. A lot of that has to do with a big offensive line, led by Harvard commit 6-foot-5, 285-pound Davis McKenna, 6-foot-4, 250-pound and tight end Derek McDonald.
They can pass the ball, but it's not the bread and butter. Hayden Richardson and Champ Davis rotate at quarterback but have only thrown it 77 times for 513 yards this season. And when they do, they go to Southern Cal-commit Joshua Moore and McDonald.
“They’re triple option, so you have to play assignment football, discipline football and be very physical,” Webb said. “At the same time, we can’t fall asleep in the secondary and let them get behind us because they can throw it.”
The Falcons' young defense has shown improvement all season and after giving up 30 ppg in the first five weeks, they’re giving up 17 ppg in the last six games this season.
Defensive ends Jr. Sam Westbrook (16 tkls) and Sr. Daiveyon Stephens (30.5 tkls) will have their hands full against the Marist triple-option, along with noseguard Sr. Anthony Menjivar (38 tkls) and tackle Sr. Clay Anderson (13.5 tkls). Linebackers Sr. Jerzee Allentini (30.5 tkls) and Fr. Cameron Haynes (30.5 tkls) and corners Jr. Tre Augustine (45.5 tkls) and Jr. Jaheim Hayes (29.5 tkls) are the leaders in the first and second levels.
"We've grown up a lot," Hall said. "We did give up a lot of points early, it does have something to do with the youth and inexperience but it also has to do with the quality of opponents that we played in the non-region. We knew that we were going to have to get better and you do that by playing better people. Our kids are gaining confidence every time they take the field."
Hall said the keys to the game are playing efficiently on offense, eliminating turnovers and miscues and playing assignment defense.
"We can't start from behind the chains," Hall said. "We can't have miscues or penalties. We have to be efficient when we have the ball, have a balanced run-pass, and we're going to have to slow them down. You're not going to stop them, but you do have to slow them down and make them punt."
GAME OF THE WEEK
FLOWERY BRANCH at MARIST
-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m.
-- WHERE: Hughes-Spalding Stadium, Atlanta
-- RADIO: WDUN AM 550
-- FLOWERY BRANCH (R8, S2) (9-2): Ranked No. 5 in Class 4A; defeated Luella 40-7 last week
-- MARIST (R6, S1) (9-0): Ranked No. 1 in Class 4A; defeated Central-Carroll 49-0 last week
-- NOTABLE: Marist leads series 2-0. The War Eagles won 20-0 and 27-0 in 2018 and 2019 while both teams were in Region 7-4A. ... Branch got its first playoff win last week since 2017 but also has not advanced past the 2nd round since 2011. ... The obvious matchup is the Branch offense against the Marist defense. The Falcons bring in the classification's No. 2 offense (420 points, 38.1 ppg) against the War Eagles' top-rated defense (27, 3.0 ppg). Marist has pitched four shutouts and allowed more than three (3) points only once all season, a 52-21 win over Mays. Flowery Branch, which put up more than 350 yards and all 40 points in the first half last week, has scored less than 27 just once in a 40-10 loss to No. 2 Jefferson. ... But the key unit may be the Branch defense. Since the opening half of the season, the young Falcons defense has improved vastly. They gave up 29.8 ppg in their first 5 games but just 103 points (17.1 ppg) since, which would put them in the top 10 in 4A. The Marist offense is 5th in 4A with 347 points (38.5 ppg). ... This will be the fifth time in their history the Falcons have faced the No. 1-ranked team. They are 0-4, including a 27-0 loss to the War Eagles and a 14-6 loss to Cartersville last season.