Class 3A defending state champion Harding Academy is riding a 15-game winning streak entering tonight's showdown with Heber Springs at Panther Stadium.

Class 3A defending state champion Harding Academy is riding a 15-game winning streak entering tonight’s showdown with Heber Springs at Panther Stadium.

The Wildcats, currently ranked No. 2 in their classification, beat Glen Rose 49-45 in last year’s state title game to finish the season 14-0 and they extended their streak last week with a 43-20 victory at Bauxite.

Harding (1-0) lost several productive players at key positions from last fall, but they list six returning starters on offense and seven on defense. Last season’s matchup with the Panthers ended due to lightning with the Panthers leading 6-0 but the Wildcats knocking on the door, facing a second and goal from the Panther 3 with 4:31 remaining in the second quarter.

Heber Coach Steve Janski is expecting a tough test tonight, however, he said his team matches up more favorably than in last week’s 57-28 loss at Pottsville.

“We [matchup] a lot better than we did with Pottsville … Not that Harding is not explosive. On film it looks like they haven’t missed a beat from last year. They had their way with Bauxite and they performed well in their scrimmage with Beebe and CAC. This is going to be a big test but I think it is more of a realistic test of how we will fare in the conference than last week.”

Coach Roddy Mote brings in an impressive record of 60-7 with the Searcy private school. Two of those losses came to Heber in 2010-11 by a combined score of 77-41.

“Harding is Harding. They are always good. Coach [Roddy] Mote does one of the best jobs in the state of Arkansas when it comes to coaching kids and doing it the right way,” said Janski.

Senior Kohl Blickenstaff (6-0, 175) took the reins at quarterback this fall, following in the footsteps of Will Francis, who passed for 8,482 yards and 85 touchdowns during his illustrious career.

“Even though they have a first-year quarterback he is not a first-year player. He is a lot better runner than Will Francis,” said Janski. “He won’t hesitate to get out there and tuck his shoulder pads and run.”

Blickenstaff completed 21-of-24 pass attempts for 184 yards and one touchdown at Bauxite, while also running for 40 yards. “They threw the ball into the field a little bit and he completed them. Now there were some screens and short stemmed routes that he completed but there were also some good balls that he completed. We are hoping to disguise some coverages and maybe he will throw one to us,” said Janski.

Last week the Panthers committed three turnovers in the red zone and 10 penalties. Janski said cleaning up those mistakes is going to be a big key. “If we eliminate the turnovers and minimize the penalties, I think those are going to be the two keys to victory. Offensively we can do a lot of scheming but we can’t turn it over in the red zone.”

The Panthers vaunted offensive line, which opened up gaping holes against a strong defensive front from Pottsville, will be crucial to success tonight.

Senior left tackle Jason Hammons, sophomore left guard Dylan Platt, junior center Zach McCormick, senior right guard Nate Hills and junior right tackle Kody Youngblood helped junior running back Chandler Marquardt account for 360 yards of total offense versus Pottsville.

“I know everybody talks about Q [Marquardt] and his 300 yards but those five offensive linemen were the shining stars,” said Janski. “We kinda had our way up front against Pottsville. This might be the best offensive line from top to bottom that I have had since I have been here. If they continue to get better and start having the mentality of putting the team on their shoulders then that would be the one plus we would have over Harding would be our offensive line over their defensive line.”

Both teams utilize a no-huddle offense. However, in contrast, Harding does not attempt to snap the ball as quick as Heber. “I think we can go faster,” said Janski. “I don’t really know that Harding wants to do that. They want to go no-huddle but I don’t know if they want to go as fast paced because they’ve got six two-way players.”

The Panthers will push the tempo on offense most of the season, but tonight they could mix it up and slow it down depending on the situation. “I think what we need to do this week is mix up the tempo. We really weren’t able to do that last week because we got in a hole so quick. The only way we could get out of that hole was to go.”

Janski expects the Wildcats’ 3-4, 50 front defensive scheme to create problems early in the game. “I expect us to struggle early because of their scheme. They play a 50 front with a quarters look but they will roll it and they are always sending pressure. It can be unsound if you hit the right gap. Like John Thompson’s philosophy on defense, there is going to be a hole open but you’ve got 2.8 seconds to hit a gap.

“I think we will struggle early trying to figure out where they want to attack us because when they do hit those gaps and we are not prepared it’s a lost yardage play. When we get it blocked up or get it protected it’s a chance for a huge explosion play. We’ve got to figure out what they want to do to us early and not get our heads down should we stall out a little,” added Janski. In past years Harding has put the ball in the air nearly 70 percent of the time.

This year the Wildcats are closer to 50 percent, according to Janski.

“Coach Mote knows what his team can do and they are right at 52 percent run over pass. They will get in two-back and run blast, quarterback blast, they will run the sweep and No. 33 [Trevor Smith] is a pretty good little running back too. He is a hard runner. He is the guy we played against last year and I thought he did a good job.”

Smith, who carried 116 times for 596 yards and 9 touchdowns last fall, is listed at 5-8, 180 pounds. “He is a strong runner and he hits it north and south,” added Janski.

Opening kickoff is set for 7 p.m.