Heber Springs cornerback Sam Lee returned a fumble 57 yards for a touchdown and pulled down an interception in the fourth quarter as the Junior Panthers' defense paved the way for a 6-0 victory over Stuttgart on Thursday night in 2-4A Conference play at Panther Stadium.
“That guy (Lee) played out of his mind,” said Junior Panther Coach Caleb Shock. “I am so happy for him. That's good for him. He is a great kid. He is a joy to be around in the locker room so that was big for him. I am glad for him to have those big plays. That is something he will remember and he and those guys will be able to talk about for a long time. He was just being where we asked him to be, playing his assignment and making a play when he had an opportunity and that's what it's about.”
Stuttgart running back Kirk Hughes carried 27 times for 105 yards and the Junior Ricebirds' defense held Heber to only 23 yards of total offense, counting nine plays that resulted in negative yardage.
Two of Heber's negative plays were actually positive considering they came from the victory formation as the Jr. Panthers chewed up the final 1:24 in the fourth quarter by taking a knee.
Linebacker Garrett Alaniz, who recovered a fumble in the first half, killed the Jr. Ricebirds' final drive with an interception on a pass over the middle.
The Junior Panthers, who improved to 2-2 overall and 1-1 in the 2-4A Conference standings, snapped a two-game losing skid following 8-point losses at Harding Academy (16-8) and Lonoke (24-16).
“We told the guys starting Monday that it was going to be all about toughness,” said Shock. “We put in a new period, which we will have to stay with on the sled, but it wasn't just linemen we preached toughness all week and I was impressed with how the guys responded.
“We talked about encouragement one week and they were big time encouragers and we talked this week about playing every snap and competing every snap. We didn't do it in the first quarter but we did it in the last three quarters and I have never seen our defense be as tough as they were tonight. It was a physical game with two teams running the football, a lot of pounding going on and our guys played tough.”
The Jr. Ricebirds' opening drive ended on third and 20 when Alaniz recovered a fumbled exchange near midfield.
On Heber's first snap, receiver Caleb Lanclos outran defenders to the right sideline, broke a tackle and turned on the burners, racing to the end zone for a 51-yard touchdown that was called back due to holding.
Two plays later Lanclos caught a 17-yard pass from quarterback Pierce Mitchum. After an illegal procedure penalty, running back Andrew Engle had a powerful run for 12 yards then Mitchum kept twice for a net of six yards and a first down, causing the Stuttgart to call timeout with 3:18 left in the first quarter.
Page 2 of 3 - Stuttgart, which dropped to 2-2 overall and 1-1 in conference play, didn't allow a first down the rest of the evening.
But Heber maintained good field position and came up with big plays at critical times. On first and 10 from the Jr. Panther 38, Stuttgart fumbled an exchange deep in the backfield, where Lee scooped the loose ball and raced 57 yards to the end zone with receiver Zyrique Geans closing in fast on his heels.
Stuttgart stuffed Engle on the two-point conversion, leaving the Jr. Panthers' lead at 6-0 with 2:53 left until halftime.
Geans broke free around left end for 38 yards on a reverse to the Heber 21 late in the first half but Heber's defense tightened as defensive lineman Luke McGowan caught Hughes in the backfield for a 3-yard loss then Lee and safety Jacob Blasingame each broke up a pass.
The Jr. Panthers lost Mitchum to a concussion early in the third quarter and the offense began to sputter as the Jr. Ricebirds teed off on Heber's running game.
Early in the fourth quarter, Stuttgart moved into Heber territory when Hughes took a pitch and chunked the ball deep to Geans, who made a leaping grab for 35 yards.
Hughes then ran four straight times for a total of 14 yards, setting up the Jr. Ricebirds with a first down at the Heber 26. Hughes rumbled over right side for nine yards on his fifth consecutive carry as Stuttgart reached the Heber 12 before a holding penalty negated a 5-yard run by Hughes.
Backed up on third and 9, Justin Feemster broke up a pass over right side and on fourth down Lee picked off a pass inside the 5-yard line and returned it back to the Heber 17, where the Jr. Ricebirds would force a three and out while using their timeouts to get one more shot at the end zone.
Starting from the Heber 44, Hughes found five yards around right end then Stewart fired incomplete on second down, leaving Stuttgart with a third and 5 with 1:30 remaining. Alaniz intercepted Stewart's third down pass over the middle at the Heber 27, where the Jr. Panthers would take a knee twice to run out the clock.
Led by McGowan and linebacker Nate Dew, the Jr. Panthers' defense contained Stuttgart's I-formation power running game. “Those guys did a good job tonight. Nate, we have been real impressed with him the last couple of weeks. He is one of the most fearless guys that we've got over there. He will just torpedo in there and he probably only weighs about a buck 20 but he will throw it all in there every tackle,” said Shock. “It's fun to watch him play. And Luke is just a great athlete and makes plays. He does a good job,” added Shock.
The victory keeps Heber's hopes alive for at least a share of the conference title. “It's huge,” said Shock of the victory. “It's a tough conference. We've got several very good teams so you've got to hang in there and beat the good ones and this was a good one. It was big for our guys to beat one of the top tier teams in our conference. We can't control what Lonoke does the rest of the season, all we can control is us and at the end of the season see where that puts us. It's big time for us. Our kids are beginning to see that if they play with intensity and a passion for the game that they are pretty dang good,” added Shock.
Page 3 of 3 - Heber travels to Marianna-Lee on Thursday at 7 p.m.