As the game wore on Stuttgart's running lanes opened and the Ricebirds took advantage, rushing 60 times for 342 yards while defeating Heber Springs 35-20 on Friday night in 2-4A Conference play.
The Panthers manhandled Stuttgart on the game's opening drive, covering 67 yards in four plays, starting when running back Chandler Marquardt used a stiff-arm to reach the edge, where he darted over right side for 23 yards into Ricebird territory.
On second and 4, quarterback Michael Kramer found room up the middle on a draw play then cutback to the right sideline, where he outran a defender for a 37-yard touchdown only 70 seconds into the game. Dillion Moore added the PAT, pushing Heber's lead to 7-0.
“Very excited with the way they started the game,” said Heber Coach Steve Janski. “I told them before they took the field, 'Don't go out here and test the water and see if this is the same state championship Stuttgart team or not.' Go out there and hit them in the mouth with everything you've got and let's see what happens. And they did that offensively. I thought our offensive line was really being physical in the first half of the ballgame.”
Stuttgart answered with a methodical 14-play, 75-yard scoring drive behind powerful running back Tyler Luster, who finished with 181 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries.
Luster ran eight times on the Ricebirds' opening drive, including a fourth and 1 in which he met resistance near the line of scrimmage but twisted forward for three yards to extend the series.
After starting quarterback Malik Brasfield kept for 16 yards, Luster rumbled up the middle for a score from four yards out and Jackson Kennedy added the PAT, tying the game at 7-7 with 4:41 left in the first quarter.
“Even though they came back and drove it down on their first drive I liked the way our defense was playing,” said Janski. “They were playing hard, they were trying to be gap sound and be physical but in the second half as a coaching staff we've got to figure out why we are coming out the way we are.
“I don't know if it's because we've got so many two-way guys. I don't know if we are getting beat up in the first half and they are giving it everything they've got but it's something we've got to figure out because I don't see anybody loafing when I watch the film on Saturday. I am seeing great effort, I am seeing fight but we are just not putting [together] back to back halves like I thought that we would,” added Janski.
Still tied at 7-all midway through the second quarter, Heber had a promising drive stall out at the Stuttgart 21 after a holding penalty negated a fourth and 9 run by Kramer, who kept over left tackle and dove across the line to gain. Backed up on fourth and 14, Kramer's pass to the end zone fell incomplete as the Ricebirds took over on downs.
Page 2 of 3 - Heber forced a punt but quickly fell behind the chains before the tide turned when Stuttgart defensive lineman Justice McGlothlin pounced on a fumble in the backfield, giving the Ricebirds a first down at the Heber 34 with 1:15 left in the first half.
Stuttgart switched quarterbacks, replacing Brasfield with Carter Ward, who completed his first three passes, including a 16-yarder to Jacob Clawson, who scooped the low pass over the middle at the Panther 3-yard line.
Carter then spiked the ball and Luster ran for two yards as Stuttgart called timeout with 21 seconds left in the first half. Following the break in action, Brasfield returned briefly under center and scored on a third and goal quarterback sneak. With 17 seconds left until halftime, Kennedy's extra-point extended Stuttgart's lead to 14-
After Trey Sims returned the opening kickoff of the second half 31 yards to the Stuttgart 47, the Ricebirds marched 53 yards in 10 plays for another score. Brasfield, playing out of the backfield, sparked Stuttgart with three straight runs for a net of 23 yards.
Facing fourth and short from the Heber 21, Ward kept on a quarterback sneak behind a strong push up front for seven yards and a new set of downs. Three plays later, on third and 1, Luster rumbled over left side and into the end zone from five yards out. Kennedy added the PAT, giving the Ricebirds a 21-7 lead with 7:54 remaining in the third quarter.
Stuttgart forced a three and out to flip the field and got right back to work, moving 46 yards in three plays for another score. On third and 5, Luster burst through a gaping hole over left side and sprinted to the end zone for a 40-yard touchdown with 5:35 left in the third quarter. Kennedy's extra-point pushed the Ricebirds' lead to 28-7.
Heber refused to go down quietly, quickly slicing its deficit in half when Kramer dumped a third and 7 screen pass to Marquardt, who followed a barrage of blocks to the left sideline, where he jumped over a mass of bodies at midfield and raced to the end zone for a 64-yard touchdown with 4:13 left in the third quarter. Moore's extra-point left Stuttgart with a 28-14 lead.
But Stuttgart countered with a 7-play, 68-yard scoring strike ignited by Luster, who found room over left side and barreled down the sideline before Heber defensive back Cooper Lawrence upended the big back at the 14, temporarily saving a touchdown.
Luster ran over left tackle again for 10 yards, setting up a 1-yard touchdown run by Ward, who kept behind center to complete the drive on second and goal. Kennedy added the PAT, boosting the Ricebirds' lead to 35-14.
The penalty bug, which has been a nuisance all season, bit Heber again on its ensuing possession when Kramer rolled left and hit utility back Chandler Jones, who raced down the sideline for a 73-yard score that was called back due to holding.
Page 3 of 3 - Heber managed to dig out of the hole but stalled out before reaching midfield. Kramer's 57-yard punt penned the Ricebirds back at their own 1 and the Panthers' defense forced a three and out when defensive tackle Zach McCormick tripped up Brasfield in the backfield, thwarting a third and 2.
The Panthers got back in the game by driving 38 yards in only three plays. On second and 7, Kramer hooked up with Conner Lindsey streaking down the right sideline for 23 yards. Using the Wildcat formation, Marquardt took a direct snap and headed around right end, where he picked up a big block from Jones en route to a 12-yard touchdown run. The Panthers never got the PAT off as the Ricebirds swallowed up Jones, the holder, following a low snap.
Trailing 35-20, Stuttgart recovered Heber's onside kick attempt and picked up one first down to help chew up some clock before the Panthers regained possession.
With 4:48 left to play, Heber needed to score quickly and got off to a good start when Kramer found wideout Hunter Chandler over left side for 19 yards. A holding penalty nullified a first down run by Kramer and the Panthers never recovered.
On second and 24, Marquardt ripped off an 18-yard run on a sweep around right end, but the Ricebirds held Marquardt to only two yards on third down and swarmed Kramer on a fourth and 3 keeper to seal the victory.
Marquardt, who compiled over 100 yards for the fifth consecutive outing, led the Panthers' offense with 23 carries for 156 yards and one touchdown. Also Heber's leading receiver for the season, Marquardt added 98 yards and a touchdown to pace the passing attack. Kramer passed for 137 yards and one touchdown while rushing for 39 yards and another score.
Linebacker Ian Lowe led the Panthers' defense with 16 tackles and Lawrence followed with five.
Heber (0-5, 0-2) hosts Marianna-Lee (0-4, 0-2) on Friday at 7 p.m.