FLOWERY BRANCH — For Flowery Branch coach Ben Hall, watching game film on North Oconee looks awfully familiar.
“They are very similar to us in a lot of ways, which can be good and bad depending on what we’re talking about,” Hall said on Tuesday as he and the Falcons got ready for what will be one of the defining games in Region 8-4A in 2021. “It’s like looking in a mirror. Which also means it’s going to be a tough game that probably will be decided by something no one expects.”
Much like it was in 2020 when the Falcons had to go to overtime to beat the Titans at home, 42-35. This time, it will be in Bogart in what is sure to be a hostile environment.
The two teams come into the 2021 edition on different paths. The Class 4A eighth-ranked Falcons (3-2, 0-1 Region 8-4A) have had two weeks to try and put a disappointing loss to No. 1 Jefferson behind them. The Titans (3-3, 2-0 Region 8-4A) have won two straight and were near-perfect on offense in a 48-20 win over Chestatee last week. Sophomore quarterback Max Wilson was beyond efficient last week going 18-of-18 passing for 217 yards and four touchdowns.
This game last year decided the No. 2 seed in the region and a home playoff game. Odds are it will again. The Titans still must close out the regular season against Jefferson.
“This is a huge game for both teams,” Hall said. “Our region is very good so any loss will have consequences. We really don’t talk that much about projections and all that. We just go play. But we also know there are some games that end up being bigger than others and this is probably one of them.”
Which brings us to a couple of huge numbers. For the Falcons, it’s 24. For the Titans, 29.
When Branch has allowed 24 points or less, it is 10-0 since the start of the 2020 season. The Falcons are just 2-5 when allowing more than 24 in that same span. The Titans have averaged 29 points a game since the start of the 2020 season but are 1-6 when scoring less than 29 in that same span.
Sounds simple, right?
“It’s not that simple,” Hall said. “Yes, we have to play well defensively. But the way we’re built, we have to control the ball on offense, whether by running it or passing it. Long drives keep our defense fresh.
“We weren’t able to do that against Jefferson and that put a lot of pressure on our defense. I thought they played well, considering.”
Last week, North Oconee jumped on Chestatee early behind Wilson, needing just two plays to grab the lead, as they used a balanced combination of run-pass throughout to keep the War Eagles off balance. They piled up over 400 yards for the game.
Wilson was supposed to be the starter coming out of Fall camp but a broken collarbone sidelined him for the first four games. The Titans went 1-3 as they had a revolving door at quarterback. North Oconee coach Tyler Aurandt said Wilson is just now rounding into form.
“Max has only played the last two weeks and what he did last week was just phenomenal,” Aurandt said. “In fact, I’m not sure in all my time here I have ever seen our offense perform so efficiently. This is a totally different animal this week with the Flowery Branch defense, though.”
The Falcons will counter with a bigger, faster front-seven than the War Eagles. Junior defensive lineman Shaun Shockley and linebackers Christian Mendoza (junior) and Cam Haynes (sophomore) lead a group that is giving up just 18 ppg so far.
As the cliché goes, it’s usually more important how you finish than how you start. Hall wasn’t so sure this time.
“They are very explosive on offense, maybe a little bit more than us,” he said. “How we start the game will be a huge factor. If I have a choice, I like starting the game on defense, so that first series, if we’re on defense, will be critical.
“That’s a tough environment over there. I’m sure they’ll be ready to go.”
Aurandt said he hopes their home crowd can give them an extra edge. But he echoed what Hall said, only in reverse.
“Their quarterback (senior David Renard) is one of the best high school quarterbacks I have ever seen in being able to get out of trouble and make big plays,” Aurandt said. “We feel like we’re playing pretty well on defense right now but he can break down any defense. If we don’t limit what he does, it could be a long night.”
The current Falcons are no strangers to tough road environments. They opened the season with a breakthrough win against St. Pius in Atlanta (21-14) in a game they trailed 14-0 in the first half.
“That St. Pius game I think did help our confidence a lot,” Hall said. “But we also didn’t over-celebrate either because we knew we had more, bigger road games, like this one, coming up. But playing games like that is why we schedule them so that we can get better and be more comfortable in these kinds of atmospheres.”
However, the Titans have really struggled against the top teams. They have lost 17 straight to ranked teams, including the Falcons last year, going back to a win over Cairo in the second round of the 2014 playoffs. But the Titans’ senior class is 15-3 at home since 2018.
Aurandt wasn’t sure which stat is the one that applies to his current group.
“I had no idea on either of those stats. Our goal here is building a consistent team that can compete,” he said. “We feel we’ve been competitive but we also know we have to find a way to beat the top teams if we want to get where we want to go. Our place is usually rocking pretty good and our kids love playing at home.
“Every region game is important but this one probably carries a little more weight right now since this one decided a home playoff game last year. Hopefully we won’t bring field goals to what I think is going to be a touchdown battle.”