Down 14-0 late in the first half with only two first downs under its belt, Class 3A defending state champion Harding Academy proved why it's so tough to beat them by hanging five consecutive touchdowns on Heber Springs while rallying for a 35-21 victory on Friday night at Panther Stadium.
The Wildcats extended their program win streak to 16 straight dating back to last year's perfect season of 14-0.
On third and 7, running back Trevor Smith sparked the Wildcats' stagnant offense on a draw play, rumbling up the middle before cutting to the right sideline and outracing the Panthers' secondary for a 62-yard touchdown with 1:52 left until halftime.
In the third quarter, Harding converted two fourth and long situations into touchdown drives, which seemingly opened up the entire offense and left Heber searching for answers.
“It is so frustrating from a coaching standpoint to not be able to get that fixed,” said Heber Springs Coach Steve Janski of the Wildcats two fourth down conversions. “We've got to find a way to get off the field on third and fourth and long and until we get that fixed and get it communicated in a way that our kids can understand and respond it's going to be tough to overcome.”
Heber's defense could not have played much better in the first half, but fell apart in the second half as the offense began to sputter as well. “It's two different teams that came out,” said Janski. “I don't really know the answer to that yet. I've got to go back and watch the film. I felt like we dominated in the first half up front … Offensive and defensive line. In the second half I felt like their offensive and defensive line whipped us up and down the field.”
Harding Coach Roddy Mote said his team showed a lot of resolve after struggling early. “Obviously you are going to make some adjustments at halftime but really I think our kids just kept playing. We were a little rusty and out of sync earlier and obviously Heber had a lot to do with that.
“We were really limited this week in practice with the weather and we weren't really able to get any kind of intense work outside. We just kept playing, that's what our kids do. A lot of resolve out of our kids,” added Mote, who improved to 61-7 at the Searcy private school while guiding the Wildcats past the Panthers for the first time in three meetings.
Heber took the game's first lead with a 3-play, 57-yard scoring strike sparked by Dillion Moore, who returned a punt 23 yards to set up good field position.
On third and 2, Panther running back Chandler Marquardt shed a tackle near the line of scrimmage and burst down the left sideline, where he used a stiff-arm at to 15 to shuck another defender en route to a spectacular 49-yard touchdown run with 7:24 remaining in the first quarter. The extra-point attempt was botched as Heber never got the kick away, leaving the score at 6-0.
Page 2 of 3 - Harding marched into Heber territory on its ensuing possession before defensive lineman Kody Youngblood busted up a fourth and long pass from Harding quarterback Kohl Blickenstaff to Smith, who only gained three yards, falling 11 yards shy of a first down.
A defensive struggle ensued as Heber linebackers Ian Lowe, Marquardt, Harley Johnston, defensive back Cooper Lawrence and defensive end Cody Bernhardt made plays all over the field before the Panthers eventually flipped the field for another score.
Michael Kramer pinned the Wildcats deep with a 34-yard-punt, which was downed at the Wildcat 8. Lawrence escorted Blickenstaff out of bounds for a 3-yard loss and the Wildcats committed a false start, pushing them back to their own 3.
On second and long, Dylan Bly provided tight coverage, which led to an incomplete pass then on third and long the Panthers swallowed up Smith on a draw play, forcing a punt.
After a low snap caused a delay, the short punt was downed at the Harding 26, where Heber ran six plays to reach the end zone.
On second and 10, Marquardt rumbled between the tackles for 10 yards then Heber's powerful junior running back carried three more times for a net of 14 yards, setting up second and goal at the 2.
Marquardt capped the drive by taking a sweep around the left end, where he met resistance but managed to break a tackle and twist into the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown run. Kramer used a play-action fake to freeze the defense and passed to receiver Hunter Chandler over left side for two more points on the conversion, boosting Heber's lead to 14-0 with 2:43 left until halftime.
The Panthers looked poised to take a two score lead into halftime until Smith turned the third down draw play into a 62-yard touchdown. Trey Davis added the PAT, trimming Heber's lead to 14-7 with 1:52 left in the first half.
“The series right before half gave us the momentum offensively on the big play on the draw,” said Mote.
The Wildcats opened the second half with a 12-play, 65-yard drive that included a fourth and 10 conversion when Blickenstaff rolled right and hooked up with receiver McClane Carger, who caught the ball past the first down marker and turned up field for 22 yards.
Six plays later on third and goal from the Panther 1, Blickenstaff faked a handoff and kept over left tackle for a touchdown. Davis added the extra-point, tying the score at 14-14 with 9:12 remaining in the third quarter.
Harding forced a three and out then covered 87 yards in 13 plays for the go-ahead touchdown. Facing a fourth and 13 from the Panther 31, the Wildcats extended their drive when Blickenstaff rolled right and hit Carger near the sideline for 16 yards.
Smith sliced up the middle for 13 yards, setting up first and goal from the Panther 2. Heber pushed
Page 3 of 3 - Harding back on two consecutive running plays, including a 2-yard tackle for loss by Bernhardt, but on third and goal Blickenstaff hit Davis for a 5-yard touchdown. Davis also kicked the extra-point, giving the Wildcats a 21-14 lead.
“Blickenstaff is pretty mobile. He is better when he is out of the pocket and we were able to make a play,” said Mote of the two critical conversions.
Heber nearly snatched the momentum back late in the third quarter when Lawrence intercepted a pass over right side, but Blickenstaff immediately got revenge for his interception.
On Heber's next snap after Lawrence's interception, Blickenstaff read a screen pass, caught the ball in stride and sprinted 52 yards to the end zone for a touchdown and Davis added the PAT, suddenly pushing the Wildcats' lead to 28-14 with 1:10 left in the third quarter.
Harding added another scoring drive on its next possession, this time covering 40 yards in six plays as Smith carried twice for gains of 13 and 12, then Davis ran two times for 6 and 3, setting up a 6-yard touchdown run by running back Josh Walker, who powered up the middle and dove across the goal-line. Davis' PAT gave the Wildcats a 35-14 lead with 10:21 left in the third quarter.
On Heber's next possession, Kramer hit Marquardt streaking down the middle of the field for 42 yards to the Wildcat 36, but Harding's defense stiffened, forcing a turnover on downs.
The Panthers forced a three and out and nearly got back in the game moments later when slot back Chandler Jones electrified the crowd with a dazzling 49-yard catch and run in which he dodged two defenders while weaving around two more with sharp cutbacks but a clipping penalty brought the ball back to the Panther 47, negating all but two yards of the spectacular play.
On fourth and 7, Kramer dropped back and lofted a pass down the left hash, where receiver Hunter Chandler made a leaping catch over a defender at the 30 and sped into the end zone for a 52-yard touchdown. Moore added the PAT, slicing Harding's lead to 35-21 with 5:28 left to play.
Walker emerged out of a scrum with the ball on Heber's onside kick attempt and the Wildcats picked up two first downs to run out the clock.
Blickenstaff, who ran for a touchdown, passed for a touchdown and scored another off an interception, completed 19-of-31 passes for 183 yards with one interception. Smith added 139 rushing yards for the Wildcats (2-0.)
Kramer completed 10-of-21 pass attempts for 132 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Marquardt carried 26 times for 151 yards and two touchdowns while making five receptions for 56 yards. Lowe led the Panthers' defense with 10 tackles and Marquardt followed with six stops.
Heber (0-2) travels to Gentry (1-1), which is coming off a loss to 3A, No. 1 ranked Charleston 23-15, on Friday.