By the end of the night, one got the feeling that if Stuttgart and Clinton were to play 10 times, it is quite possible that the series would end in an even 5-5 split.

For anyone that chose not to attend Friday night’s homecoming game versus Clinton, consider it an opportunity missed. Stuttgart and Clinton matched up in arguably the most exciting, competitive and intense football game for Stuttgart on the 2013 season. To be honest, it was a pleasure to have the privilege to cover the game from the sideline. Neither team played mistake free football. There were dropped passes, too many penalties, and three costly Yellow Jacket turnovers on the night. When the scoreboard read 00:00 however, all in attendance could feel like both teams performed at a playoff worthy level in a game that epitomized all that is right about high school athletics. Of course, it did not hurt that the Birds emerged victorious by a score of 35-27.

By the end of the night, one got the feeling that if Stuttgart and Clinton were to play 10 times, it is quite possible that the series would end in an even 5-5 split. There was little separation between the two programs. That being said, all game long, when a big play needed to be made, it was typically a Ricebird seizing the moment. Friday night’s win was a complete team effort in which numerous Bird players had a hand. The Ricebird offensive line consistently allowed ball carriers room to gain positive yards. The defensive line played disciplined football and the linebackers were able to move freely to make plays. The Ricebird secondary kept plays in front of them, and with the exception of one play, did not allow chunk plays this week. Stuttgart’s quarterback made good decisions with the ball while carrying it 22 times. Stuttgart’s fullback Jake Dillingham, a sometimes forgotten man, charged into the Clinton line with reckless abandon, lead blocking for his ball carrier as Stuttgart slowly pounded away at the Yellow Jackets. Oh, and then there was the play of senior Jackson Kennedy.

Kennedy is far from a physically imposing specimen. According to the Stuttgart roster, he stands only 5-5 and weighs a mere 141 pounds. At least 100 pounds of that is Kennedy’s heart. Kennedy was the difference maker that Stuttgart needed Friday night. The senior returned punts, rushed the ball and threw a pass, all of which occurred at critical moments during the game.

Stuttgart began the game on offense and got right to work. The Birds used an 11-play drive, consisting of 10 rushes, to move the ball 65 yards in five-plus minutes to get on the board first. Stuttgart used a mixture of sophomore Malik Brasfield and senior Tyler Luster runs for the majority of the drive. Brasfield made a beautiful throw on the eighth play of the drive, connecting with Jordan Dorsett for 26 yards down to the Clinton four-yard line. Kennedy’s PAT sailed wide right and Stuttgart led 6-0.

The remainder of the first quarter was a back and forth defensive struggle. Stuttgart forced two Clinton punts, and Stuttgart punted once as well. It should be noted that the Ricebird defense did a much better job tackling ball carriers this week as opposed to last week’s performance against Newport.     

Clinton got on the scoreboard with its first possession of the second quarter, which began with excellent field position at the Bird 35. With 9:54 remaining in the quarter, the Clinton ball carrier fumbled the ball into the endzone, but unfortunately it was pounced on by No. 10 for the Jackets. The PAT made the score 7-6 in favor of the visitors. Following another Ricebird punt that was downed at the Clinton 14, Jacket senior wingback Mason Speer took a pitch on the first play of the drive and dashed 86 yards for another Clinton touchdown. With 7:44 remaining in the half, Stuttgart found itself trailing 13-6.

The Bird offense was still stagnant on their next drive and were forced to punt. Clinton set up shop at the Bird 45-yard line and promptly began moving the ball at will on Stuttgart. To be honest, at this point in the game, it was looking like a great homecoming crowd would be going home unhappy. On to the stage stepped Dorsett. The junior defensive back, arguably the best athlete on the team, stepped in front of a Fielder Dufrene pass in the end zone keeping the score at 13-6. With 2:47 remaining in the half, the Stuttgart offense would finally wake up. Brasfield would help move the ball 28 yards in three plays. On first down, the offensive staff would put the ball in Kennedy’s hands. The senior wide receiver took the handoff moving to Stuttgart’s sideline. After patiently waiting for his blockers to plow the road, Kennedy then streaked 52 yards down the sideline for a Ricebird touchdown. Coach Billy Elmore got a little creative on the PAT. Following a fake, the ball was pitched to wingback Brasfield who made a perfect throw to Jerrell Hobbs in the end zone. Stuttgart executed the fake perfectly and led 14-13. That would be the score at halftime, but not without the play of Ricebird defensive back Trey Sims. Clinton, following a good return, moved the ball to Stuttgart’s seven-yard line with seven seconds on the clock. It would take a Sims interception in the end zone to preserve the Bird’s one point halftime lead.

There was a definite feeling that momentum had shifted following the last two possessions of the period. Stuttgart may have broken a record for fastest time getting into the locker room for halftime. The start of the second half would do nothing to dissuade that feeling. Clinton went three and out on its possession, and was forced to punt. Clinton’s mistake was letting the ball get into the hands of Kennedy.

Kennedy fielded the Clinton punt at the Bird 40 -yard line and danced his way all the way out to the Clinton 19. An additional 15 yards was added to the run, the result of a Jacket unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and Stuttgart was in business at the Clinton four-yard line.

Two plays later, the Birds held a 21-13 lead. Once again, Stuttgart’s defense held Clinton to a three and out.

One would expect that, considering the previous punt’s outcome, the Jacket coaching staff would want nothing to do with Stuttgart’s punt return team. After all, this is a unit that had returned a punt for a touchdown against Newport, and the previous punt of the night was returned to the Clinton 4. One would think… and one would be wrong. Clinton chose to kick it to Kennedy again, and once again, Kennedy returned the ball all the way down the Jacket 22-yard line. Stuttgart’s return unit did a stellar job of walling off the coverage team to allow Kennedy the space he needed. Five plays into the drive Luster would rumble nine yards for another Ricebird score. The PAT was good, and with 4:01 remaining in the third Stuttgart led 28-13.

Ned Moseley Stadium was rocking! Clinton was on the verge of being sent home with a Ricebird sized knot on its forehead. However, Clinton would not lay down. The Yellow Jackets responded with an 11-play drive of 80 yards to make the score 28-20. Clinton would turn to its passing game on the drive, hitting an array of receivers in the middle of the field for nice gains. Stuttgart’s defense made Clinton earn it however, and the drive took almost four minutes off the clock. That would prove to be four minutes that Clinton would need later. The quarter ended with Stuttgart maintaining a 28-20 lead.

The Bird offense made no headway following Clinton’s score and punted the ball back. Clinton started its drive from the Bird’s 49 yard line. The game was beginning to take on an uncomfortable feeling to most in the home stands. Once again however, a Bird player stepped up and made a play. On the first snap of the drive for Clinton, Demontae Vincer tipped a Dufrene pass that ended up in the waiting arms of Ricebird Hobbs. The moment was not proving to be too big for these Ricebirds.

To this point in the game, Stuttgart had received big plays from Dorsett, Sims, Vincer, Kennedy and Hobbs. It would take one more great play from Kennedy to finish off Clinton. On the first play of the ensuing drive Kennedy once again took a handoff on a Jet Sweep. Instead of running with the ball however, Kennedy pulled up and lofted a perfectly placed ball to Vincer along the Jacket sideline. Vincer made a nice grab at the Clinton 30 and Stuttgart was in business. Five plays later Stuttgart scored to make it 35-20 with 8:37 remaining. The Ricebird coaching staff’s willingness to be creative played a big role in the game’s outcome.

There was just no giving up for Clinton. The Jackets responded with a four-play, 52-yard drive to make the score 35-27. Stuttgart got the ball back with 6:55 remaining in the game at its own 11. Typically, a game winning drive is capped off by a go-ahead score of some type. On this night however, Stuttgart’s game winning drive was an 11-play, 74-yard drive that ended in no points. It did however eat nearly five minutes off the game clock. Clinton mounted a furious final drive, reaching Stuttgart’s 28 yard line with less than a minute remaining, but they would be undone by two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and a holding call. In the end, Stuttgart held on for a 35-27 victory.

There is more than enough praise to go around to individuals following Friday night’s big win. After reflecting on the game however, this was a total team win if there ever was one. The coaching staff, players and fans all deserve to share in this victory. It was a great night for football and more than worth the price of admission.

With Friday night’s win, Stuttgart moves to 4-3 overall on the season and 3-1 in 2-4A conference play. That conference record is good enough to place Stuttgart in a tie for second place with Lonoke. The toughest challenge of the season is coming up this Friday night for the Birds, however, with a trip to Pine Bluff Dollarway. The Cardinals have averaged beating teams by a 35-point margin while racing out to a 7-0 mark. It is games like this however that makes competitors’ blood boil. Stuttgart is staring a huge opportunity in the face this Friday night.

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Cardinal Stadium.