VINCENT — After some less-than-stellar efforts over the past few weeks and a tumble from the top of the state Class 2A rankings to an also-ran, Fultondale needed to make a statement against a worthy opponent.
They did just that Thursday night, and ArDarius Stewart did most of the talking.
The senior quarterback/safety scored five rushing touchdowns, threw a pass to Kris Lewis for another, and intercepted a pass in the end zone to stop a Vincent drive cold, as the Wildcats defeated the Yellow Jackets 59-36.
The game was moved to Thursday night so it could be televised on WABM-68’s “Thursday Night Lights” series, and the station had been hoping to showcase Fultondale’s prized Alabama commitment.
Stewart did not disappoint.
He cut through the Vincent defense with relative ease, scoring on runs of 33, 5, 1, 42 and 3 yards. His touchdown toss looked at first to be a sure interception, as Stewart had lofted the ball a bit too much — but Lewis made a spectacular leap in coverage, came down with the ball and trotted about 20 more yards for the score in the first quarter.
Stewart totaled 202 yards on the ground on 24 carries.
“That young ‘un right here is one of the toughest I’ve ever seen,” Fultondale coach Keith Register said of Stewart. “People don’t know it, but he played last week [against Pleasant Valley] with a rib knocked out of place. It was painful. But he came out here and did that this week.”
The game had all the earmarks of a track meet, as the two teams combined for 61 points in the first half alone. After Stewart finished off the Wildcats’ opening drive by running untouched to the goal line, Vincent countered with running back Rodney Groce, their workhorse for the night, who scored on a 2-yard run up the middle. The two-point conversion on the fake kick lineup gave the home team an 8-7 lead, its only advantage of the night.
Stewart broke his big scoring run on the third play of the following possession, then finished off their next drive — which came off a fumble by the Yellow Jackets — with the 15-yarder where he bounced off one defender and then cut a spin move into the end zone.
After Stewart scored again two minutes into the second quarter, Jackets quarterback Damauntey Johnson paired with receiver Kevin Greene to keep the hosts in the game. The twosome connected for a 72-yard touchdown pass two plays after Stewart’s score, and then after forcing a Fultondale three-and-out, paired up again for 87 yards and a TD. That play cut the Wildcat lead to 28-22 with 7:07 left in the half.
Stewart scored again a little over two minutes later from the Vincent 42, but the played was called back for an illegal-procedure penalty — and then it wasn’t.
Immediately after the penalty was called, Register called time out to talk with the officials. The flag was because of an illegal formation, but It turned out that the Wildcats were within the rules by having eight men on the line of scrimmage — a trick play that Register had discussed with the officials in their pre-game conference. The flag was picked up and the touchdown stood — and despite the presence of television cameras, there was no replay official in the press box reviewing a coach’s challenge.
Kicker Enrique Aguilar made a 36-yard field goal with five second left before halftime to give Fultondale a 39-22 lead.
Groce got the Jackets a bit close midway through the third quarter when he took off on a 73-yard run, with six more yards added on a Wildcat foul. He then scored from the 6.
But Stewart put Fultondale back up with a 3-yard scoring dash, and Register was content to keep the ball on the ground the rest of the way to try to run off the clock.
Dante Stanley ran for a 13-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter, and Scherod Brown added a score from the 2 with 2:37 left. Johnson also scored on a 1-yard plunge for Vincent midway through the fourth.
Aguilar was 6-for-7 on extra-point kicks. He was just short on a 39-yard field goal attempt in the third period.
Groce led the Jackets with 125 yards on 15 carries. Johnson was 9-for-12 passing with two interceptions (the other went to Stewart’s younger brother, Jared) and 232 yards. ArDarius Stewart was 2-for-7 in passing for 69 yards.
It was just the effort Register wanted to see after the team's recent struggles.
“We’ve been lost the last couple of weeks, to be honest. I think we’re coming along, after the first two weeks we muddled through,” Register said. “We were still lost in the first part of the ACA game, but now we went back to having fun. Being number one in the state is not their makeup, and it’s not our makeup. It was a burden to us, and now we’re playing to have fun.”
The win puts the Wildcats at 3-2 in the region (5-2 overall), and largely in charge of their own playoff destiny as they play two remaining region opponents over which they should be heavily favored.
Vincent also stands at 5-2, 3-2, but must still face Woodland next week.