It took a really good "D" to stop a really good "Dee."
Top-ranked Tanner stood up to quarterback ArDarius "Dee" Stewart, and simply did not allow him to get any meaningful momentum going as they scored a 14-0 victory over homestanding Fultondale in the Class 2A AHSAA football quarterfinals.
Stewart finished the night with 101 yards, but was forced to go to the air more often than he has been used to as of late, and could not connect consistently with receivers. Meanwhile, the Rattlers did what they do best: stuff the opponent's running game in between the hash marks, while using their own potent ground attack to full advantage.
Tanner scored in the first period on a 30-yard run by Kyle Shoulders, who broke through the middle of the Wildcat line and into the open field. Their other touchdown came on the first play of the second quarter, as running back Fredrick Rich went up the middle, paused when he saw Stewart (at safety) in his way, turned left and dashed toward the pylon.
The Rattlers (13-0) threatened to score only one more time at the very end of the first half, when a drive stalled out at the Fultondale 3-yard line and kicker Alan Rios' 20-yard field goal attempt went wide right. That came after a controversial call in which quarterback Jonathon Fletcher appeared to have completed a pass to Greg Maclin at the back of the end zone with eight seconds before halftime, but the pass was ruled incomplete. Fultondale was called for pass interference on the play, but that only served to move the ball four yards closer on the field goal attempt.
The Wildcats had their chances throughout the game, but were stopped three times in the red zone and five times in Tanner territory. The closest they came was the Rattler 6-yard line on the Cats' first drive of the second half, but Stewart was held to four straight one-yard runs, and came up short on fourth down and two after a Tanner offsides penalty.
The Wildcats' opening drive went for 15 plays down to the 16, but ended with a 33-yard field goal attempt by Enrique Aguilar that sailed wide right.
The home team's final chance of the night came up short at the Tanner 19, ending with a pair of incomplete passes — one too long for the outstretched hands of Blake Reno, and the other batted down by Rich.
Fultondale did not punt at all; one drive ended with an interception, as three Rattler defenders quickly converged on a bomb from Stewart to his younger brother Jared, with Maclin coming up with the pick-off. But except for the missed field goal, on the rest of their drives Wildcat coach Keith Register elected to go for it — including twice when he gambled with ArDarius Stewart firing bombs to Jared Stewart on post patterns, with the throws simply too long for the freshman. Those were two of eight instances where ArDarius Stewart’s strong passing arm was simply a bit too strong, as the routes were well run by receivers and the throws on line, but simply too far.
“It was just one of those nights,” the quarterback said. “We were looking at opening up the passing game all week in practice to get past their containment, but it just wasn’t our night. I knew we were going to have to do this [go to the air attack], but it just didn’t work out.”
That sums up Fultondale’s night — they made few mistakes that really hurt, but were simply outplayed by a stronger team.
And the Rattlers gave the Wildcats (10-3) ample opportunities thanks to turnovers: a fumble deep in Fultondale territory recovered by John Chaney that squelched a drive in the fourth quarter, and another on the second play of the second half that came into Tommy Usher’s hands near midfield. But the Tanner defense made up for both mistakes with stops in the red zone.
At game’s end, Register was emotional, especially at the thought of seeing ArDarius Stewart for the final time in a Wildcat uniform.
“We played hard, we just made too many mistakes,” said Register. “We had our chances. But these kids have a lot to be proud of, because they’ve done something that hasn’t ever been done around this joint — 20-6 and two straight trips to the quarterfinals.”
Rattlers' defense stops ArDarius Stewart cold
It took a really good "D" to stop a really good "Dee."
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