Buford secured its 15th region championship in the last 16 years on Friday, but the 42-7 win over Flowery Branch wasn’t quite as lopsided as the score might indicate.
The No. 2-ranked Wolves (8-1) led only 14-7 at halftime before physically wearing out No. 9-ranked Flowery Branch (8-2) in the second half to claim the Region 8-AAAAA title.
“It never gets old,” said Buford senior Anthony Grant. “It was great for us. They gave us a good look. They were a good team and we respected them a lot. They got us ready for the next step.”
Grant rushed for 102 yards and one touchdown, but it was freshman quarterback Aaron McLaughlin who did much of the damage through the air. He completed 19 of 26 passes for 293 yards and four touchdowns.
McLaughlin hit Isaiah Isaac for a 33-yard touchdown midway in the third quarter to begin the onslaught. He threw a 27-yard touchdown to Tyler Gillis, who had worked his way free of the defender and was wide open in the end zone. He threw for a 17-yard score to Carson Guy in the fourth quarter.
“Going into a game you hope you can (throw the ball),” McLaughlin said. “Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s the preparation we go through during practice, that’s what gets us there.”
Flowery Branch was stuck with bad field position for much of the night and was not able to get its running game started. Malik Drayton led the Falcons with 52 yards rushing. Quarterback Elijah Gainey threw for 236 yards, but was intercepted twice.
“They wore us down in the second half,” Flowery Branch coach Ben Hall said. “They big-played us. I’m proud of our kids, proud of the way they battled. We’re going to take the positives and head on into the playoffs.”
Buford coach John Ford said, “I knew we had to play fast, physical, attacking defense and gang tackle. I knew we had to put a lot of bodies and hats on their ball carriers and our defensive staff did a great job coming up with the plan.”
Buford methodically scored on its first possession, driving 52 yards in 10 plays. The big play was a 20-yard run by Turner, but the touchdown came on a 6-yar pass from McLaughlin to Isaiah Isaac with 6:54 left in the quarter.
Buford went ahead 14-0 with 3:37 left in the half. The Wolves started with a short field and punched it in from the 48 in six plays, with Grant scoring on a 1-yard run.
That’s when Flowery Branch turned the momentum around. Quarterback Elijah Gainey connected with a long pass to Jalin Strong down the sideline for an 85-yard touchdown, which cut the lead to 14-7 with 3:19 left in the half.
The Falcons drove to the Buford 33 and appeared to have connected with another long pass that would put them inside the 10, but the play was negated by offensive pass interference. The drive had been started by a Buford pass interference call.
“We knew they’d come in here and not give it to us,” Ford said “They’ve got a lot of pride and have done a good job this year. It was just play hard and play for each other and don’t beat ourselves. We eliminated some of the mistakes and did OK.”