By Kim West
For a team that averaged putting away opponents by 38 points per game last season, more than a few fans looked shell-shocked by Tanner’s 48-6 loss in its season opener against Madison Academy on a muggy Thursday night at Bill Washington Stadium.
In a prize fight of top-ranked teams and defending state champions, Class 3A Madison Academy landed the first punch less than 2 minutes into the first quarter on fullback Malik Miller's 1-yard touchdown. The Mustangs, which amassed 348 rushing yards, held a 21-0 halftime advantage thanks to four turnovers by Class 2A Tanner, which finished with an uncharacteristic six giveaways in front of a standing-room only crowd that ringed the field’s five-foot tall chain-link fences.
Tanner, which hadn’t lost a regular-season game since a 24-7 loss to Lexington four years ago, cracked the goose egg on Madison Academy’s high-tech scoreboard by opening the second half with a long kickoff return by Hayden Stephens and a quick 11-yard TD toss from JonJon Fletcher to Jamal Townsend, who was so wide open in the right corner of the end zone that he could have completed a few push-ups before reeling in Fletcher’s pass.
The Mustangs — which leaned on its massive offensive line and running back trio of Miller, La'Markus Martin and All-State performer Kerryon Johnson — put the overmatched Rattlers back on the ropes by answering Tanner’s scoring drive with a 15-yard scamper by Martin, and they put the victory on ice at the beginning of the final quarter when Martin made it 35-6 after a weaving, 45-yard run down the left side that left several tacklers in his wake.
But Madison Academy, which lost 13-7 in last year’s season opener to a Tanner squad regarded by some as the best team in the lower four classifications of AHSAA football, did not seem to call a cease-fire with a four-score advantage.
MA, which dominated the point of attack on both sides of the ball and seemingly had All-State defensive lineman Frank Williams stationed in the Rattlers’ backfield, had several starters play deep into the game. With Tanner resorting to a pass-first attack, the Mustangs’ Logan Hamlett scored on a 50-yard fumble recovery to increase the advantage to 41-6.
Leading by 35 points, MA continued to throw the ball and run its offense instead of milking the clock. Hamlett, who made several big catches on offense as well as key defensive plays, slid over from his starting receiver spot to spell starting QB Blake Coward. Hamlett capped the scoring with less than 4 minutes remaining in the game when he found the end zone again on a 4-yard QB keeper.
I heard some grumbling in the opposing press box during a Tanner blowout victory last year against a Shoals-area team. The difference is that Rattlers coach Laron White, who offered no excuses for Thursday’s loss, pulled his starters with nearly two full quarters remaining in that 2012 game and chose to run the ball repeatedly against an overmatched team instead of inflating the box score.
Madison Academy, which has several players receiving Division I interest, walked off the field as the unquestioned victor and is clearly the team to beat in 3A this year. But I’m not sure it was necessary to take another shot at an opponent that had already been knocked out.