West Limestone coach Shelby Davis likes to run the football. But with Tanner loading the box to stop the run, it was two long pass plays that made the difference in the Wildcats' 21-2 victory over the Rattlers Thursday night.
Trailing 2-0 with just over 2 minutes remaining in the first half, Wildcats quarterback Christian Adams hooked up with River Helms on a slant that the junior turned into a 44-yard scoring play that gave West a 7-2 lead after Richie Grimes' extra point.
After Tanner punted on its next possession, West took over with fewer than 30 seconds remaining in the half, but it didn't take the Wildcats long to strike. Adams threw another deep pass to Helms, who caught the ball and broke a tackle on his way to a 55-yard touchdown play with just 5 seconds remaining in the half that gave the Wildcats a 14-2 halftime lead.
“They were loading the box, and we had to find a way to get River the ball,” Davis said. “Those two plays were huge for us.”
Tanner coach Oscar Bonds was frustrated with his defense allowing a long touchdown pass right before halftime.
“We gave up that late touchdown before halftime, and that cannot happen,” Bonds said. “Right there, that play sprung the game open. If we go to halftime down 7-2, we're fine. But they made the plays and we didn't.”
While Tanner's defense gave up two long touchdown passes late in the first half, the Rattlers' offense couldn't put points on the board despite advancing inside West Limestone's 5-yard line on two separate occasions.
The Rattlers recovered a West Limestone fumble at the 26-yard line midway through the first quarter, and moved the ball all the way to the 1-yard line, with a 19-yard pass from Malik Atkins to Elinneaus Orr being the big play. Atkins led Tanner with 85 yards passing and 44 yards rushing. However, two plays later a bad snap caused a fumble, which West Limestone recovered to stop the scoring threat.
Tanner's defense immediately put points on the board, however, as Thorne Slaton was tackled in the end zone for a safety to put the Rattlers up 2-0 late in the first quarter. That's the way the score stayed until West Limestone's two scoring strikes late in the first half.
After a scoreless third quarter, Tanner had a chance to get back in the game early in the fourth quarter, as the Rattlers once again drove inside West Limestone's 5-yard line. However, the Wildcats defense stood tall again and stopped Tanner on downs.
“We're going to rely heavily on our defense,” Davis said. “There's going to be a lot of games where we've got to rely on playing good defense and running the football. That combination wins a lot of games.”
Tanner struggled with leg cramps and injuries the entire second half, and West finally took advantage midway through the fourth quarter when Dakota Jefferson broke loose for a 30-yard touchdown run to basically put the game away. Tanner suffered a big loss when starting running back Michael Guster had to leave the game with a broken collarbone.
“We've got 25 players, and got about eight eighth graders playing with us, so we're very, very young,” Bonds said. “So if you see a junior or senior come out of the game, you're seeing an eighth grader come into the game. But we're going to build this thing. I think we were in a good position to win this game. My head is still high and I still feel like we can have a great season.”
In his first career start at quarterback for West Limestone, Adams finished the game with 158 yards passing on seven completions, with Helms having 99 yards receiving and two touchdowns on his two receptions. Jefferson had 55 yards rushing with a touchdown to lead West.
“He's got a lot of guts,” Davis said of his sophomore quarterback. He's an instinctive player and he's not going to give up on a play. He gives us a chance when a play breaks down.”
Tanner was led by Atkins, who had 85 yards passing and 44 yards rushing. The Rattlers suffered a huge blow when starting running back Michael Guster broke his collarbone, which will keep him out for much of the remainder of the season.
West Limestone (1-0) hosts East Limestone Thursday night, while Tanner (0-1) will play at Clements Friday.