By Erik Harris
North Jefferson News
Top-ranked Tanner played suffocating defense all night to log its third straight shutout of the post-season, with a 14-0 win over Fultondale that lands the Rattlers in the AHSAA Class 2A semifinals.
The difference in this one was Tanner’s ability to contain ArDarius Stewart, Fultondale’s electrifying quarterback. The Wildcats have relied on his superior athleticism to control tempo and dictate momentum throughout the playoffs, and the entire season for that matter.
The Rattler defense was loaded with impressive athletes that possessed the ability to swarm Stewart’s rushing attempts and render him wholly ineffective.
“They had more people in the box than we did, so the odds were not in our favor,” said Fultondale head coach Keith Register.
Tanner was particularly impressive on the defensive front. Juniors Seth Smith and Shamaud Baker, along with seniors Trey Fletcher and Kyle Shoulders anchor the Rattlers defense.
Their ability to dominate the Wildcats offensive front and strike down the Fultondale running game made it a long night for the typically dominant Stewart, who scorched the highlight videos just one week ago with seven rushing touchdowns on 350 yards on the ground against Fyffe.
“We had to do a better job of throwing and catching, but we couldn’t [get it done],” said Register.
Despite defeating Tanner in time of possession and plays run, the Wildcats were unable to answer the visitors’ two early touchdowns.
“We came in so ready to play that we didn’t take care of our fundamentals on those first two drives,” said Fultondale linebacker Julian Hardy.
Sophomore quarterback Jonathon Fletcher commandeered a six-play, 85-yard drive on their opening possession, which was capped off by Shoulders’ 30-yard rumble on fourth down and one. Fletcher answered with a four-play, 39-yard drive just minutes later to give Tanner a 14-0 lead that would never be threatened. Fredrick Rich took the handoff 19 yards down the visitors’ sideline.
Fultondale’s defense played admirably all night, giving Stewart and the offense plenty of opportunities to strike. But Stewart overthrew any chance Fultondale had to advance.
Midway through the second quarter, the Wildcat coaching staff dialed up a beautiful hitch-and-go route that left Jared Stewart completely alone with nothing but the end zone before him.
However, his brother fired a laser that gave Jared no chance of tracking it down, squandering a perfect scoring opportunity.
“We had our chances, we just couldn’t make it work,” said Register.
Misfired deep balls became the norm for Fultondale in the second half.
The Wildcats’ inability to adjust their game against a physical defense, and also to connect on vertical passes, leaves them at home while Tanner moves on to the semifinals against Reeltown next Friday.