By Kim West
Imposing senior lineman Baltazar “Tito” Rubio listed two simple reasons for Tanner’s hard-earned victory against the Woodland Bobcats in the first round of the state playoffs — patience and practice.
On a nearly freezing and clear Friday night at Rip Swanner Stadium, the Rattlers (9-1) fended off unranked Woodland, 41-29, to advance to the second round for the ninth straight season.
Tanner, the defending state champion, will host North Sand Mountain next Friday after the Bison (9-2) upended Reeltown, 17-7, in the first round.
“I’m excited,” said a smiling but weary Rubio after helping pave the way for 332 rushing yards and applying constant pressure to the Woodland backfield. “I’m glad we got the win, and I’m ready to go to the second round.”
Since 2010, Tanner seniors Blake Whitt, Deshun Freeman, Seth Smith, Shamaud Baker, Chris Townsend, Hayden Stephens, Landon Kyle and Rubio have compiled a 48-3 overall record, a 12-2 postseason mark, four region championships and two title game appearances.
“I didn’t want this to be my last game, or the last game for the other seniors,” said Rubio, one of three Rattlers with a sack, along with Shamaud Baker and Kaleb Thatch.
After opening last year’s run to the Class 2A title with a 55-0 triumph against Sand Rock, No. 1 Tanner faced a much tougher test in this year’s first-round opponent.
The Rattlers overcame an early 8-0 deficit that momentarily quieted the raucous home crowd, when Woodland (6-5) marched 69 yards on the game-opening drive and scored on a 1-yard run by Colby Spears and a 2-point pass from John Adcock to Jimmy Sims.
Tanner, which hadn’t trailed all season against 2A teams, answered the challenge on its first two drives.
Stephens stretched the Woodland defense to the right sideline on runs of 16 and 15 yards and did it again on a third-and-goal scamper from the Bobcats’ 1-yard line to cut the lead to 8-7.
After Tanner’s Ty Mayberry, who also rumbled 15 yards for a key third-down conversion, forced a fumble that was pounced on by Sydnae Townsend at the Woodland 38. Stephens only needed two plays to re-discover the end zone, when he hopped over a fallen defender and burst in from 20 yards out with 3:34 left in the first.
Tanner led 14-8 and never trailed again despite a valiant effort from the Bobcats. Woodland trailed only 21-16 at halftime and managed to score twice late in the fourth, but a 20-0 scoring spree by Tanner proved to be too much of a cushion.
“We just needed to make tackles and stop the gaps,” Rubio said. “Coach (Laron) White was really calm at halftime and showed us what we needed to do on the bulletin board.”
Stephens, Whitt and junior quarterback JonJon Fletcher carried the offense, which amassed 401 yards and six scores in spite of a penalty-plagued game that saw 19 flags, including 11 for Tanner.
Stephens, who had seven carries of 10-plus yards, rushed 25 times for 188 yards and four touchdowns on runs of 1, 20, 10 and 71 yards, while Whitt caught five passes for 69 yards and two touchdowns.
Fletcher put on a gritty performance in evading a robust pass rush by Woodland, running 17 times for 133 yards and tossing TD passes of 9 and 15 yards to Whitt with no interceptions.
Adcock, the nephew of longtime Decatur coach Jere Adcock, and his array of skill players found a few seams in the Tanner defense and also took advantage of the flurry of flags thrown against the Rattlers.
Adcock often rolled out to buy extra time to find the five receivers that snagged his passes. He went 11 of 29 passing for 148 yards, two TDs and an interception, and scrambled six times for 28 yards and a score against a defense came into the game allowing only seven points per contest.
Woodland running backs Justus Herring and Colby Spears combined for three catches for 48 yards, 17 rushes for 114 yards and one touchdown.
• Allan Rios converted 5 of 6 extra point tries for Tanner, while Woodland’s Hunter Baldwin went 1 of 1.
• The Bobcats went for 2-point conversions on three touchdowns, converting 2 of 3. Tanner’s Austin Lewter picked off an Adcock 2-point pass in the fourth quarter.
• Tanner coach Laron White and Woodland coach Larry Strain each entered the game as 100-game winners. White, in his 11th season at Tanner, is 114-22 overall and 20-9 in the playoffs. Strain, in his 15th at Woodland, is 100-78 and 16-12.
• Blake Whitt, Seth Smith, Shamaud Baker and Tito Rubio served as Tanner game captains.
• Tanner improves to 3-0 all-time against Woodland after previously beating the Bobcats, 38-0, in the third round of the 2011 playoffs and 28-24 in the second round of the 2004 postseason.