SUGAR HILL — Whether it was the aftershock of last week’s double-overtime loss to Chestatee, or the early cold snap that settled in, it took a while for Lanier to get things going on Friday night.
But once the Longhorns finally found their stride, there was no stopping them.
Trailing 14-10 at the half at home against Stephens County in a key Region 8-AAAA matchup, Lanier came out in the final two quarters with a dominating defense and a bullish running game to pull away for a 31-14 win.
The win firmly put Lanier (6-3, 3-2) in third place in the region with two regular season games remaining at Lumpkin County and at home against Walnut Grove, giving the Longhorns an excellent shot at its first playoff berth.
“We had a couple of miscues early in the game which put us behind,” Lanier head coach Billy Wells said. “We talked at halftime about weathering that storm and creating opportunities in the second half.”
Those second-half opportunities came from both sides of the ball as the defense forced two turnovers and kept the Indians (4-4,2-3) scoreless, while the offensive line paved the way for Tario Fuller.
Fuller, a junior running back, put together a huge night behind his blockers by carrying the ball 27 times for 231 yards with two touchdowns.
Fuller had a solid first half with 94 yards on 12 attempts, but failed to score. But as the second half evolved, Fuller found his second wind and added 137 more yards and two scores before the final buzzer.
“His effort was certainly outstanding,” Wells said. “But I think he would be the first one to tell you that his offensive line did a great job. But I also think that once or twice, he reached down for a little bit more.”
It wasn’t the legs of Fuller that got the night started for Lanier but a play from its special teams when Grey Lee Williams returned a punt 70 yards for a score.
That score put Lanier up 7-0 midway through the first quarter, but Stephens County tied it in the waning seconds of the first with a 4-yard TD run from Jai Brown and took a 14-7 lead with 4:55 left before half with a 1-yard scoring run from Brown.
Brown led the Indians with 84 yards and two TDs on 18 carries.
Lanier had a chance to tie the game late in the second quarter when it had first and goal from the 10, but Stephens County showed some defensive toughness of its own and forced Lanier to settle for a 26-yard field goal from Ryan Edwards, leaving the score 14-10 at the break.
But the second half was all Lanier.
Lanier took the second-half kickoff and nearly scored when Stefan Bell took it from his own 19 to the Indian 20 but had it punched out from behind with Stephens County recovering.
But the Lanier defense forced an Indian punt, and Lanier took the ensuing possession 66 yards on 10 plays to go up 17-14, ending the drive with Fuller’s 2-yard TD run.
Two possessions later, Fuller scored again, this time from 41 yards out, effectively putting Lanier in control 24-14 with 7:48 left to play.
Lanier wasn’t done, however, as the defense forced a fumble from running back Sapario Reese with Jesse Landers coming out of the pile with the ball.
Eight plays later and facing a third-and-23 from its own 24, Lanier quarterback Canyon Cook took a low snap, rolled to his left and found Timothy Leazer in the end zone for a 24-yard score for the final 31-14 margin.
“We want to travel to Lumpkin next week and have a good game but we know we have a lot of things to work on,” Wells said. “We’ll address those and get ready to play next week.”
LANIER 31, STEPHENS COUNTY 14
Stephens Co. 7 7 0 0 - 14
Lanier 7 3 7 14 - 31
Lanier: Grey Lee Williams 70 punt return (Ryan Edwards kick) 6:15
Stephens Co.: Jai Brown 4 run (Jacob Oliver kick) :37
Stephens Co.: Brown 1 run (Oliver kick) 4:55
Lanier: Edwards 26 FG, 1:33
Lanier: Tario Fuller 2 run (Edwards kick) 4:47
Lanier: Fuller 41 run (Edwards kick) 7:48
Lanier: Timothy Leazer 24 pass from Canyon Cook (Edwards kick) 3:08