The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

November 30, 2013

No. 1 Tanner drops No. 4 Fyffe, 16-7, to advance to 2A finals

Stephens runs for 228 yards, 2 TDs; Freeman picks off 2 passes

By Kim West

FYFFE — Top-ranked Tanner came from behind for the fourth straight playoff game to advance to its third Class 2A championship game in the past three seasons.

On a clear and frosty Friday night, the Rattlers (12-1) fended off fourth-ranked Fyffe, 16-7, by bouncing back from a 7-0 deficit and reeling off 16 unanswered points in front of a standing-room only crowd at Long-Ridgeway Stadium.

Tanner, which scored on touchdown runs of 92 and 78 yards by Hayden Stephens and a 20-yard field goal from Allan Rios, outpaced the Red Devils 9-0 in the second half to hold on for its 26th consecutive 2A victory since losing to Elba in the state finals in 2011.

Tanner, the defending state champions, will face No. 3 Washington County, which beat Sweet Water 28-14 in the other semifinal game, next Friday in a rematch of last year’s title game. Kickoff is at 3 p.m. at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.

“I got a second chance after my PAT was blocked, and I just took a deep breath and followed through,” said Rios, as blanket-clad Tanner fans lined up to shake the players’ hands and give them congratulatory fist-bumps. “Thank God I made it, and I couldn’t have done it without my snapper, Blake Whitt, my holder, JonJon Fletcher, and our offensive line.”

Stephens’ first scoring scamper — he found a crease to the right and zoomed down the right sideline — tied the game in the first quarter.

His second touchdown put Tanner ahead 13-7 with 25 seconds left in the third quarter, when the senior running back darted through a gap created by offensive lineman Baltazar “Tito” Rubio and Seth Smith in the right side of the Fyffe defensive line.

Stephens, who overcame a fumble on the opening kickoff and on a carry in the second quarter, ran 22 times for 228 yards and two touchdowns. He has piled up 692 yards and 10 TDs in the past four weeks of the postseason.

The game remained in doubt late in the fourth quarter, with Fyffe’s Levi Bates blocking Rios’ extra-point kick. The Red Devils marched 46 yards in 12 plays to claim first-and-10 at the Tanner 16-yard line. Fyffe (12-2), which only trailed 13-7, took a shot at the end zone with 6:30 remaining, but Tanner made them instantly regret the risky play call since the offense was running the ball efficiently during a drive that started to swing momentum back to the home team.

Defensive back Deshun Freeman, whose 31-yard punt return in the fourth led to Rios’ field goal, intercepted Fyffe freshman quarterback Will Mashburn in the end zone for the second time after also picking him off on the Red Devils’ first drive of the game.

The giveaway and the wasted opportunity in the red zone seemed to deflate Fyffe. The ensuing field-goal drive sealed the win for Tanner, whose only loss in two years came against defending 3A state champion Madison Academy in this season’s opener.

Fyffe’s lone touchdown came early in the first quarter when Mashburn went up the middle for a 6-yard quarterback keeper and Russell Moses converted the point-after try to cap an impressive 11-play scoring drive on the Red Devils’ second drive after Freeman’s first pick ended their first offensive series.

Tanner had 373 yards of total offense, while holding Fyffe to 251 yards and virtually shutting down its downfield passing game. Mashburn was only 5 of 16 passing for 55 yards and two INTs, along with seven carries for 22 yards and one score.

Fyffe’s trifecta of running backs  — Levi Bates, Austin Stiefel and Trent Thrash — ran 43 times for 174 yards, but the Red Devils could not keep drives alive. Despite holding a 14-9 edge on first downs, they were forced to punt six times.

Whitt, whose helmet popped off while he was making a tackle from his defensive back position, led Tanner with three receptions for 64 yards. Fletcher, the Rattlers’ dual-threat signal-caller, finished 4 of 7 for 83 yards passing with no interceptions and ran seven times for 24 yards to help keep the chains moving..

Stiefel had a team-high three catches for 24 yards, and Thrash had 18 carries for 76 yards for the Red Devils.

Fyffe’s Pancho Perez, Tyler Ashley, James Carroll and Austin Coots each had a tackle for a loss, with Coots recovering a fumble and Ryan Martin recording a 9-yard sack.

Smith, Rubio, Freeman, Whitt, Jalen Houston and Kaleb Thatch all had a tackle for a loss for Tanner, which has won four region championships and posted a 51-3 record since 2010.