By Robert Carter
North Jefferson News
The king ruled with an iron hand — and powerful legs.
Just minutes after being named Fultondale’s homecoming king, quarterback ArDarius Stewart took the opening kickoff back for 80 yards and a touchdown. It was the first of six trips to the end zone for the Alabama commitment, as the Wildcats rolled over Ranburne 48-21.
The victory locked up a Class 2A playoff berth for Fultondale. They are the third seed from Region 6, and will travel to play the second seed in Region 5. That spot was secured by Lanett, who defeated Horseshoe Bend Friday night.
But as for Stewart, his talents were on full display against the Bulldogs. He sputtered a little at first, and struggled with a throwing arm that was on the tight side. That led to two interceptions by Ranburne cornerback Bradley Gibbs, one of them in the end zone.
“I couldn’t get my arm turned going because people were hitting me up under my waist. It hurt my throwing motion and the ball sailed on me both times,” Stewart said.
But about the time the second quarter began, Stewart got his engines firing on all cylinders.
After the Bulldogs took the lead on their second possession on a 9-yard touchdown run by freshman running back Dylan Tullis, Stewart engineered a 53-yard drive that ended on the first play of the second period, as he ran the ball in from the 1.
Nine minutes later, is was Stewart scoring again, but not the same Stewart. This time it was the younger brother Jared, who took off toward the home sideline, tiptoed to avoid going our of bounds, and broke open for a 39-yard score.
Big brother ArDarius took advantage of a bad snap on a Ranburne punt attempt, which was turned over at the Bulldog 8-yard line with nine seconds to go in the first half. On the next play, ArDarius Stewart took off for the left-side corner, and then went airborne over a shorter Bulldog defender. He came down on the other side of the goal line for his third touchdown, with two seconds left before halftime.
“I knew I was getting into that end zone, and there was nothing anyone was going to do to stop me, even if I had to run over them, jump over them or spin my way in,” Stewart said. “The guy was shorter than I am and I know I wasn’t going to get lower on him — I’m 6-1 and 190 [pounds], so I won’t get lower than someone 5-foot-6 — so I decided to elevate over him.”
The Bulldogs cut the deficit to 13 as they scored on the first drive of the second half, aided by a Fultondale personal foul that moved the ball down to the 15. Six plays later, quarterback Jared Edwards charged up the middle for a 1-yard score.
But the Wildcats returned the favor, also benefitting from a crucial 15-yard face mask flag on the Dogs. ArDarius Stewart found Khyree Robinson for a 21-yard pass down to the Ranburne 7, and Stewart ran it in on the next play.
He finished off Fultondale’s next possession with a 9-yard ramble to the right side on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Bulldogs made some ground back up on the first play of the ensuing drive, as Shane Tullis — the workhorse of the visitors’ rushing game all night — ran a reverse for 68 yards and a touchdown.
Ranburne then pulled off a successful onside kick, but went four-and-out thanks in large part to a sack by Fultondale’s Julian Hardy that dropped Edwards for a 9-yard loss.
Ranburne had a another chance midway through the final quarter, as a Wildcat drive stalled out and Stewart the elder, back in punt formation, had to chase down a bad snap that gave the Bulldogs the ball at the Wildcat 31. But again, the guests went four and out, and immediately after the ball went over on downs, Stewart ran for his longest scoring romp of the night — a 72-yard run off a handoff from Kris Lewis.
Stewart would have had seven touchdowns, but a 43-yard scoring run in the second quarter was negated by an illegal block in the back. Fultondale struggled with penalties again, and had one player ejected on an unposrtsmanlike-conduct foul. Otherwise, the Wildcats turned in an impressive overall effort.
“We all played well, like I thought we would,” Coach Keith Register said. “Take away the Woodland and Walter Wellborn game and we’ve been improving. I think some people are going to have a tough time with us in the playoffs.”
ArDarius Stewart finished the game with 255 yards on 22 carries, an average of 11.6 yards per rush attempt. He was 4-for-7 in passing with two interceptions for 45 yards.
Scherod Brown ran 13 times for 47 yards. Jared Stewart had 39 yards on two carries, the touchdown run plus a no-gain carry.
Fultondale (7-2, 5-2 region) hosts Parrish next Friday night to close the regular season.