By Jonathan Deal
Walter Wellborn entered Friday’s second round playoff game averaging more than 44 points per game. That statistic did not impress Tanner, which handed the Panthers a 48-0 loss to advance in the Class 2A playoffs.
Tanner (11-0) dominated the game from the opening kickoff and led 28-0 at halftime before pouring on three more touchdowns in the third quarter. The yardage differential was even more lopsided as Tanner outgained the visitors 539 to 137 in total yards.
“We knew coming in that we could score some points, but that offense is so difficult to stop. I thought our defense played extremely well,” Tanner head coach Laron White said. “We played our keys perfectly and made them one dimensional.”
Tanner shut down Wellborn’s leading rushers, Chantz Goodman and Kevin Mixon, who both rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season. On Friday, Goodman was held to 17 carries for 21 yards while Mixon ran for 22 yards in the loss.
While the Tanner defense shut down Wellborn’s explosive offense, the Rattler running back duo of Hayden Stephens and Fred Rich ripped through the visitors on the ground. The duo combined for 359 yards as a much smaller Panthers team struggled to deal with Tanner’s size.
“We knew they would have some problems blocking some our guys,” White said about the size difference.
That size difference was on display at wide receiver position where Tanner’s Greg Maclin, (6’3) matched up against a much smaller cornerback in Wellborn’s Jared Vera (5’5). Vera was no match for the UAB commit, who beat his man for a 16-yard touchdown from quarterback Jonathan Fletcher just before the half.
As Wellborn (9-2) crowded to the line of scrimmage to stop the run, Fletcher took advantage with several big passing plays. The sophomore finished the game 6 for 6 for 99 yards and a touchdown while adding a rushing score.
It was the special teams that got Tanner on the board first when Blake Whitt blocked Evan Entrekin’s punt and returned it 31 yards for a score. Alex Rios’ extra point gave Tanner an early 7-0 lead.
“Blake always makes sure the guy kicks the ball,” White said. “We had our return on and Blake was able to pressure him and block it.”
Tanner’s offense didn’t touch the ball until nearly eight minutes into the game, but when it did, it was productive. The Rattlers put together an 8-play 77 yard drive, capped by Stephens 11 yard run to extend the lead to 14-0.
After Entrekin’s punt pinned Tanner inside its own 3-yard line, the Rattlers drove 97 yards in 12 plays to take a 21-0 lead. After Rich and Stephens were stuffed on the goal line, Fletcher ran a naked bootleg from three yards out and went in untouched for the score.
Fullback Kyle Shoulders put any hopes of a comeback to bed on Tanner’s first possession of the second half. The bruising back carried the ball straight up the gut, running through three Wellborn defenders while carrying another into the end zone on a 29-yard touchdown run.
After a quick three-and-out, Stephens added another 14-yard touchdown to give Tanner a 41-0 lead. It only took Rich one play on Tanner’s next drive to score the final touchdown of the game. The senior stiff-armed a defender to get to the sideline where he carried the ball 71 yards for a score.
Rich led Tanner with 12 carries for 175 yards and touchdown for a staggering 14.5 yard average. Stephens averaged more than eight yards per rush, carrying the ball 22 times for 184 yards and two touchdowns.
“We lost some starters from last year and at the beginning the year, I wasn’t hitting the holes like I should,” Stephens said. “Now, when I’m in a game, it feels so much more natural and my offensive line is opening big holes for me to run through.”
Tanner will play Fultondale (10-2) in a third-round playoff game, Friday Nov. 23 at 7 p.m.