Ridgeland Panthers

In the words of legendary University of Tennessee football coach General Robert Neyland, "the team that makes the fewest mistakes will win" and "play for and make the breaks and when one comes your way, score."

Had Neyland attended Friday's Class AAAA state playoff opener at Bowers and Painter Field, he would probably have tipped his fedora, sat back and smiled.

Ridgeland forced three fumbles, recorded four interceptions and scored 31 points off Flowery Branch turnovers as the No. 10-ranked Panthers (8-3) used a dominant defensive effort to send the No. 8 Falcons (8-3) back home with a 34-14 defeat.

The Falcons had 200 total yards on the night, but managed just 44 net yards on the ground, thanks to the Panthers' swarming defense that recorded five sacks. Junior outside linebacker Terrance Roberts terrorized Flowery Branch quarterback Elijah Gainey to the tune of four solo sacks, while he assisted on the fifth.

Two of Roberts' solo efforts came back-to-back on third and fourth down in the closing minute of the first half with the Falcons at the Ridgeland 16-yard line. The stops preserved the Panthers' 10-0 halftime advantage.

"After last week's win against Southeast, Coach (Cortney) Braswell had the film on Flowery Branch ready for us the very next morning at 4 a.m.," Roberts explained. "He had us over-prepared for this week. We were prepared for a tough game with us having played Calhoun, Troup and Sandy Creek at the beginning of this season, so we were ready.

"Coach preached all week that the tight end was going to block down and I just knew I could use my speed off the edge to get in the backfield, so that's what I did all night."

After getting the start under center in the regular season finale at Southeast Whitfield, junior Nathan Carver got the call again on Friday and responded by going 10-of-17 for 154 yards. His very first pass of the evening was picked off, but the Panthers would force a fumble at the Ridgeland 5-yard line and Carver would lead a long drive to get Ridgeland on the board with a 45-yard Conner Middleton field goal.

Ridgeland would then jar the ball free from Connor Larson on the ensuing kickoff to set up a Houdini-esque 17-yard TD run by Jordan Blackwell that saw the junior reverse his field twice after the play initially looked as if it would go for a sizeable loss.

The Falcons, missing a small handful of key starters due to injuries and other reasons, used two Ridgeland pass interference penalties to march the ball inside the Panthers' 10-yard line. But Roberts' first sack would set them back seven yards and force a field goal try. However, the kick never got off the ground as the snap went through the holders' hands, resulting a 21-yard loss and a turnover on downs.

The Falcons would finally get the board late in the third quarter as Gainey found Owen Warbington four times for 66 yards on a 91-yard drive. Warbington's 42-yard catch would set up Chase Dial-Watson on a 3-yard burst that sliced Ridgeland's lead down to 10-7 with 2:05 left in the period and things would get tense for Panther Nation as Ridgeland was forced to punt on the first play of the fourth quarter.

But that's when the Ridgeland defense simply took over with three interceptions in a span of just four minutes.

Shawn Wilson, Jr. picked off a Gainey pass on third-and-10 as Blackwell raced 34 yards for a score just one play later to boost the lead to 17-7. Just over 3:30 later, Jordan Hughley hauled in a Gainey overthrow at the Ridgeland 10 and scampered 80 yards to set up a 10-yard TD run by Roberts. Blackwell would make it 31-7 on the very next play from scrimmage as he stepped in front of a Gainey pass and went 25 yards on the pick-six.

Flowery Branch would get back on the board with 5:47 to play as C.J. Goodwin caught a 5-yard pass from Gainey. But after a failed onside kick attempt, Ridgeland got a 36-yard run by Roberts to set up a 37-yard field goal by Middleton. Calvin Dallas would then seal the victory with Ridgeland's fourth pick of the fourth quarter just six seconds later.

"Terrance said it best, we were over-prepared tonight," Braswell beamed. "We started out 0-2 and learned a lot of lessons in that. Then we lost the region championship to Pickens when we didn't play up to our capabilities. But what our kids have done well is learn that everything is in the details. Tonight, really for the first time, we played well in all three phases - offense, defense and special teams. Obviously, there are things we need to fix and get better at, but we played a really solid football team and came out with a big win."

Blackwell collected 146 yards on 18 carries, while Roberts rushed four times for 43 yards. A'zavier Blackwell caught four passes for 61 yards, while Ridgeland's newest deep threat, Tanner Hill, had two grabs for 63 yards.

"Tanner is the ultimate team player," Braswell added. "He's been a starter at quarterback for three years now, but he (recently) made the move to receiver because Nathan is a kid that we just didn't think we could keep on the sidelines. Nathan had a great game last week and then came out tonight and played another great game against one of the top teams in our classification. We're able to get Tanner involved in other ways and that has just made us better."

The 34 points by Ridgeland was the most points allowed by Flowery Branch all season long, bettering the 22 the Falcons gave up to top-ranked Blessed Trinity in region play. They came into the game allowing 12.6 a game on defense, sixth-best in Class AAAA.

Ridgeland will now head to the second round for the second year in a row as they will brace for a trip to Cartersville to take on the undefeated and No. 2-ranked Purple Hurricanes, who downed Stephens County, 34-7, in their playoff opener. It will be the third all-time meeting between the two schools, but the first since 2015.