Football is a game of inches, and often a handful of plays make the difference between an L and a W on the schedule.
Such was the case Thursday when Tanner took on Lexington at Rip Swanner Stadium, with the game bumped up a day due to potential severe weather Friday.
The Golden Bears led 13-6 at halftime and 13-12 at the end of the third quarter, but a 75-yard touchdown reception by Neaus Orr and a goal-line stand by the Tanner defense in the fourth quarter propelled the Rattlers (1-1) to a 20-13 victory and their first win of the 2020 season.
“We are trying to learn how to win ball games,” said head coach Oscar Bonds. “This is a good start. They fought all the way through. We're a young bunch. I have 16 freshman out of 25 players. They are learning how to fight and compete.”
After trading punts, Tanner managed to pin Lexington deep in its own territory. The Golden Bears attempted a punt from their own end zone, but the snap was mishandled and the punter was dragged down at the Lexington 2-yard line, giving the Rattlers possession in the red zone.
Two plays later, Michael Guster punched the ball into the end zone to put the Rattlers up 6-0 after a missed PAT.
This scoreline would remain until late in the second quarter when Tanner went to punt from its own 6-yard line. The kick was rushed by the Lexington defense and sailed high, only making it to the Rattlers' 21.
Lexington's quarterback went around the right side on the next play and scored to even the contest at 6-6 after the PAT was blocked.
The Golden Bears got the ball back before halftime and managed a sustained drive that culminated in a 25-yard touchdown run that put Lexington up 13-6 with 10 seconds remaining before intermission.
After trading possessions in the third quarter, Tanner put the ball in the hands of Evan Fuqua multiple times, and the senior willed the Rattlers down the field.
Fuqua capped the drive with a 27-yard touchdown scamper with 3:13 remaining in the third. The PAT sailed barely wide left, and Lexington remained ahead 13-12.
Things looked grim for Tanner early in the fourth quarter. The Rattlers were once again forced to punt from deep inside their own territory.
Nick Gibson lined up in the Tanner end zone for the punt, but the snap was low. Thinking fast, Gibson picked up the ball and made it as far as he could on the ground amidst the Lexington defense.
He was pulled down around the 10-yard line, but an unsportsmanlike penalty and resulting half-the-distance mark off gave the Golden Bears possession first-and-goal from the Tanner 4.
Lexington fumbled but recovered on its next two plays, and an incomplete pass forced by defensive pressure left the Golden Bears at fourth-and-goal from the Rattlers' 5-yard line.
Lexington was called for an illegal shift on the next play, but it was declined since the Tanner defense came up big and made the stop to force a turnover on downs with 10:21 remaining in the game.
“That was huge,” Bonds said. “We got backed up. We had a lot of bad penalties that we have to clean up, but I love how the defense stepped up and made a huge stop down there.”
Tanner got the ball out to its own 25 during the ensuing possession before quarterback Skylar Townsend found receiver Orr on the flat. Orr made a defender miss, got a block from a teammate and shot off down the sideline for the aforementioned 75-yard touchdown reception to put the Rattlers back on top 20-13 after Fuqua punched in the conversion.
As time began to dwindle in the fourth quarter, Tanner seemed to ice the victory when Nick Garth jumped a pass deep in Lexington territory and took it to the house. However, the play was negated by an offsides penalty, and the Golden Bears found life after the second chance.
Lexington crossed midfield and was closing in on the red zone when Orr picked off a pass and returned it to the Tanner 33-yard line. This time there was no flag to negate the turnover, and the Rattlers were able to run out the clock and secure the W.
The Rattlers begin Class 2A, Region 7 play next week when they travel to face Section High. This will be the first meeting of the teams since 1981 and only the second of all time.
“We have to clean up a lot of mistakes,” Bonds said. “We have to get better at blocking and tackling.”