FULTONDALE — Make it three in a row.
Three postseason football games. Three straight shutouts.
And Tanner High’s latest defensive masterpiece came against the most talented player the Rattlers have faced this season.
Tanner bottled up Fultondale quarterback ArDarius Stewart, limiting the talented Alabama commitment to no big plays as the top-ranked Rattlers advanced past the Wildcats 14-0 Friday night in the Class 2A quarterfinals.
Tanner (12-0) travels to Reeltown next Friday, with the winner securing a spot in the Class 2A state title game.
“Three shutouts in the playoffs, that’s not easy to do,” Tanner linebacker Dexter Douglas said. “But we’ve worked our tails off and take pride in our defense.”
Letting out a sigh of relief, Tanner coach Laron White agreed.
“It’s special, especially considering the caliber of team we were playing,” White said. “They had the talent to take it the end zone at any time. But our game plan coming in was to make somebody (other than Stewart) beat us, and our guys executed it well.”
Stewart still got his yards. He rushed for 118 on 26 carries, while completing 9 of 25 passes for 98 yards with an interception.
But big chunks of yards? Stewart never got those.
Tanner didn’t allow it.
Stewart’s longest gain was a 17-yard run, and he only averaged 4.3 yards per carry.
“We knew what type of player he was coming into this,” Douglas said. “His speed, you can’t simulate that in practice. He’s so elusive. Definitely the fastest player we’ve faced, but we weren’t going to let his beat us.”
There’s no denying that Tanner’s defense has been a strength, and the Rattlers cater their game plan around the unit and its smothering ways.
Using a conservative offensive approach, Tanner leaned on its running game, chewing up yards and clock while building a 14-0 halftime lead.
Tanner quarterback Jonathan Fletcher only attempted three passes, completing two for 48 yards. The Rattlers piled up 231 yards on the ground.
“That’s who we are,” White said. “We’re going to run the ball and cater to our defense. That’s been our philosophy all season, and it’s worked well.”
Fultondale coach Keith Register didn’t share that philosophy. The Wildcats attempted six fourth-down conversions, converting just one. Fultondale never attempted a punt and turned the ball over on downs near midfield twice.
The gambles hurt Fultondale — especially in the second quarter.
After Kyle Shoulders gave Tanner a 7-0 lead with a 30-yard touchdown, Fultondale’s ensuing drive stalled near midfield. Instead of punting, Register opted to keep his offense on the field, despite facing a fourth-and-3 situation on the Wildcats’ 46.
The risk failed miserably. Stewart fumbled the snap, turning the ball over on downs, setting up a quick Tanner scoring drive that ended with Fred Rich running 18 yards for a touchdown.
Rich finished with 103 yards on 17 carries. Hayden Stephens had 73 yards on 17 carries.
“This is a special feeling,” Rich said. “As soon as the time clicked hit zero, it hit me that we’re back in the semifinals and are one game away from getting to Auburn (for the state title game).
“Getting there isn’t easy, because in the playoffs, at this time of year, any team can beat you. But we feel like if we keep bringing it, then we can play with anybody.”
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