By Kim West
As players emerged from the locker room known as “The Pit,” sophomore lineman Austin Lewter paused to tease senior receiver Blake Whitt, who was wrapping up a post-game interview.
Lewter, a two-year starter who jokingly refers to himself as “the true team spokesman,” was in high spirits following No. 3 Tanner’s 49-15 dismantling of Sheffield on a slightly chilly Friday night at Rip Swanner Stadium.
The Rattlers (6-1, 5-0 Region 8) notched its 33rd straight region win in Class 2A against Sheffield (2-5, 2-3), which trailed 28-7 at halftime.
Junior quarterback JonJon Fletcher connected with Whitt for touchdowns of 21 and 81 yards in the first half and found an open Chris Townsend on a 20-yard corner route in the third.
“On the 21-yard touchdown, the defense was playing up close on me and the defender bit on a jab step. The 81-yard score was pretty much a foot race,” Whitt said. “We’ve always been a team that plays a downhill running game, but this year we’ve opened things up on offense.”
Senior running back Hayden Stephens, who routinely beat Sheffield defenders to the edge, broke tackles and made decisive cuts behind strong blocking, scored on a 1-yard run in the first quarter and a 2-yard dash in the third.
“Our passing game is helping us because every team we’ve played this year is packing the box with seven or eight defenders at the beginning of the game,” Whitt said. “We were able to go over the top tonight and spread out the defense to open up our running game for Hayden, Ronald (Taylor) and Tiquaveious (Mayberry).”
Tanner, which pulled its starters early in the third, allowed only 178 yards of total offense, including 10 yards through the air.
Despite a first-half interception and a second-half fumble on a low snap from center, Tanner rolled up 377 yards of offense. The Rattlers covered 250 yards on the ground and opened the game with a 13-play, tone-setting drive that covered 77 yards and featured a dozen run plays.
Sheffield shot itself in the foot with three turnovers that led to three touchdowns by Tanner. The Rattlers’ Deshun Freeman intercepted Drake Beavers and Jalen Houston and Sydnae Townsend each recovered fumbles.
“We played together as a team more than we have before tonight, and we were able to get into the flow of the game early,” Whitt said. “We had subs that came in and contributed. With nine guys playing both ways, this helps us out a lot.”
Fletcher finished 3 of 6 passing for 122 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. The elusive QB ran four times for 20 yards and scored on a 4-yard keeper.
Stephens totaled 115 yards, two TDs and a 2-point conversion on 17 carries. Lee Hisbon ran 10 times for 54 yards and a 2-yard touchdown for Tanner’s final score in the fourth, and Allan Rios converted 5 of 6 extra-point attempts.
Beavers tossed a 5-yard touchdown pass to Jordan King on the Bulldogs’ final play of the first half. Tyriq Garner rushed six times for a team-high 79 yards and an 11-yard scamper late in the fourth.
In Week 8 action, Tanner can clinch its fourth straight region title at Hatton (3-4, 2-3), while Sheffield hosts Cherokee (3-4, 1-4).