Top-ranked Tanner capped a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback on Friday in a 27-17 victory against the unranked North Sand Mountain Bison, advancing to the quarterfinals of the Class 2A playoffs for the fourth straight season.
Tanner (10-1), the defending 2A champion, will travel about three hours south to play at unranked Montgomery Academy (11-1) next Friday. The Eagles earned a 54-44 road-game victory Friday night against No. 10 Ranburne in a second-round shootout.
On a frigid and foggy night at Rip Swanner Stadium, the Tanner defense stood strong in the second half against the feisty Bison (9-3). The Rattlers came up with a fumble recovery, an interception, a turnover on downs and four three-and-outs after facing a halftime deficit, 10-6, for the first time this season against a 2A team.
“This is Tanner — they don’t train us to quit,” said senior slot receiver Chris Townsend, who also plays on defense as a reserve defensive back and linebacker.
Townsend, starting at cornerback in place of flu-stricken starter Deshun Freeman, picked off dual-threat quarterback Cody McBryar at the Bison 39-yard line as Tanner clung to a 20-17 lead with 6:48 remaining in the game.
“I was a little nervous at first, and I knew I had big shoes to fill because Deshun is a really good cornerback,” said a beaming Townsend before he was ushered into the locker room. “I’m a senior, and I couldn’t give up just because (of nerves).”
Trailing 17-6 and following six straight punts combined from the two teams, the resilient Rattlers seized control in the fourth after North Sand Mountain opened the second half with a 75-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Jordan Harmon.
After Joseph Alonzo’s punt sailed out of bounds at the Bison 47, Tanner rang up consecutive first downs when Hayden Stephens plunged over right guard on third-and-1 and quarterback JonJon Fletcher play-faked to scamper for a 15-yard keeper.
The Rattlers cut the lead to 17-12 when Fletcher faked run again and found Stephens wide open in the right flat for an 11-yard pass play, and Ronald Taylor rumbled into the end zone from the Bison 15.
Tanner got the ball right back when Kaleb Thatch and Ty Mayberry met McBryar in the backfield and forced the quarterback to fumble at his own 33 with 9:54 left in the fourth.
Stephens opened a quick, four-play scoring drive by scooting 19 yards around right end, followed by two Taylor runs up the middle to get the ball to the 1. Stephens found the end zone on the next play, adding a 2-point scoring run on a toss sweep play to the left pylon to give Tanner its first lead of the game at 20-17.
After Seth Smith took down McBryar for an 8-yard sack to open the ensuing North Sand Mountain drive, Townsend went up for the ball with Ean Miles and came down with an interception but the officials ruled it as a catch for Miles.
But two plays later, Townsend out-jumped a taller Ben Britt to come away with the Bison’s second turnover and McBryar’s only interception in 29 pass attempts.
Mayberry nearly scored on the first play of the ensuing Tanner drive, but Miles made a diving, touchdown-saving tackle in the secondary to bring the big back down at the Tanner 30. The Bison defense still forced a punt on fourth-and-4, but then went three-and-out on its next possession.
With 3:36 left, Tanner set up for a clock-killing drive with a Stephens 1-yard run at its own 26. On the next play, North Sand Mountain’s Michael Farber jarred the ball loose from Fletcher but offensive lineman Baltazar “Tito” Rubio prevented the Bison from recovering the loose ball near the Tanner red zone by pouncing on it in the backfield.
Then on third-and-14 from the Tanner 22, the Rattlers’ blockers opened a seam for Stephens in the middle of the field and he bounced to the right, dashing 78 yards to increase the lead to 27-17 with 2:32 to play.
North Sand Mountain opened its final drive with a 10-yard pass from McBryar to Britt, but his final four throws fell incomplete.
Taylor rushed two times for 12 yards to give Tanner a first down, and the Rattlers ran out the clock on three kneel-downs to cap the wild final frame in which they outscored the Bison 21-0.
By the numbers
Tanner’s trio of running backs combined for four touchdowns and 278 yards on 39 carries, with the Rattlers outgaining the Bison 338 to 244 in total offense.
Stephens ran 24 times for 151 yards and two touchdowns and returned a kickoff 67 yards to jump-start Tanner’s first scoring drive, which ended with a 25-yard TD run by Mayberry.
Stephens also caught an 11-yard pass and had two pass breakups on defense. Mayberry totaled 79 yards and a touchdown with only eight carries, while Taylor ran seven times for 47 yards and a TD.
Blake Whitt caught a 16-yard pass from Fletcher and added a 30-yard punt return in the first half. Allan Rios went 1 of 2 on extra points, and the Rattlers were 1 of 2 on two-point attempts.
For North Sand Mountain, McBryar completed his first 10 passes and finished 16 of 29 for 231 yards with a 91-yard scoring bomb to Austin Cummins and one interception.
McBryar had 4 yards rushing on 10 carries thanks to a lost fumble and four tackles for a loss by the Tanner defense, while Brenden Walsh was held to seven carries for 7 yards.
Wide receiver Christopher George finished with eight catches for 78 yards, and Cummins had a team-high 101 yards on two receptions. Alonzo, who converted 2 of 2 extra-points, booted a 39-yard field goal in the first quarter and missed a 37-yard attempt in the closing seconds of the first half.