For the past two seasons, Heber Springs has shared the 4A-2 conference crown with Stuttgart.

Those same Ricebirds come to Panther Stadium tonight to tangle with Heber Springs.

Heber Springs is coming off a shorter than normal week, but more importantly, off a win for the first time this season. The Panthers game on Friday night was suspended because of weather, forcing Heber Springs to make a return trip to Lonoke on Saturday, a 28-14 victory over the Jackrabbits.

Meanwhile, Stuttgart finished off Southside Batesville on Friday night, 35-15 – the game was 35-7 before the Southerners scored a late touchdown. The win by the Ricebirds avenged a loss last season to Southside Batesville.

Heber Springs coach Darren Gowen said the shorter than normal week didn’t affect his team.

“We had a good week of practice,” Gowen said. “They came out, were focused and realize that this is a big week.”

The Panthers dropped a 20-7 decision at Stuttgart last year a week after the Ricebirds fell to the Southerners.

The two teams first met in 2006 when Stuttgart dropped down from Class 5A and was placed in the 4A-2 conference with Heber Springs. Since then, the Ricebirds have been the measuring stick for the 4A-2 conference.

“Stuttgart is always a big game and tough for us,” Gowen said, “but the kids always get excited to play them.”

Last week against Southside Batesville, the Ricebirds led 14-7 at the half, but wore down the Southerners behind the legs of running back David Walker, who rushed for four touchdowns in the contest.

“They are big,” Gowen said of Stuttgart. “They are big at the running back spot. They have a couple of real good athletes, quarterback and receiver.

“We have our work cut for us. We are going to have to tackle well. Fortunately, they are not overly complicated offensively or defensively. We understand what they are going to do. It’s just if we can tackle them and be able to block them.”

After relying on the running of Blaze Nelson through the non-conference portion of the schedule, the Panthers opened it up last week at Lonoke coming out with the hurry-up passing game. Gowen said that was the game plan going into the conference opener because that was what the Jackrabbits were giving up.

So what about tonight against Stuttgart?

“Big plays are going to be tough, so we are going to have to be content with getting first downs – four or five yards a pop,” Gowen said. “We’ll take a few chances, and we’ve got some stuff I think might hit for a big play or two.

“But for the most part, it’s going to be ball control. Keep the defense off the field and keep moving the football. They are pretty big up front and very well coached.”

Julian Cameron was four-for-four in extra points, including connecting on all three in a heavy, third-quarter rain last week at Lonoke, but the Panthers did miss out on recovering an onside kick attempt on the opening kickoff and lost an onside kick later in the game.

“It’s very concerning,” Gowen said. “We’ve lost three onside kicks (this season) and one punt that we’ve fumbled back to the other team. All four times they’ve scored so those are very concerning things that we’ve worked on, and talked about it.

“We just have to do better. We just have to make sure we get the ball, that’s the number one priority is to get the ball.”

It will be Heber Springs’ second of four home games this season.

“Kids loving being at home,” Gowen said. “The Crowd is going to be here. It’s going to be a little bit cooler weather and that’s always fun.”

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

COACH GOWEN’S THREE KEYS TO VICTORY

1. Stay in front of the chains: “Can’t have penalties and negative yard plays.”

2. Wrap them up and bring down: “We’ve got to tackle.”

3. Be Special: “We’ve got to win special teams. We haven’t been doing that lately and we have to get better.”