Heber Springs did something Friday night only one other Panther football team has done this decade, and that was shut out an opponent.

Heber Springs used a “bend but don’t break” defense, two big pass plays and one long drive to claim a 21-0 4A-2 victory over Southside Batesville Friday night in a game that was played in a steady downpour at times.

“I’d take a one-point win, but 21-0?” Heber Springs coach Darren Gowen said. “I wasn’t thinking shutout, but the defense played incredible.”

The last time the Panthers blanked an opponent was on Oct. 5, 2012, a 54-0 victory at Marianna-Lee.

The Panther defense limited Southside Batesville (4-4, 2-3 in 4A-2) to 189 total yards, but only 57 yards and two first downs in the second half.

“The defense just dominated in the second half,” Gowen said.

Heber Springs (4-4, 4-1) clinched a playoff berth with the win and have put themselves in a position to clinch a home playoff berth this week (the conference’s top three seeds get a first-round playoff game at home)”

“They put themselves in a position that they want to be in,” Gowen said of his team. “We just have to take care of business the next two weeks.”

It was a sluggish start for both teams Friday night.

The Panthers coughed up the football on the Southside 14 early in the contest. Later in the quarter, Tri Johnson recovered a muff punt return at the Southerner 18. However, the drive would stall and Julian Cameron’s 34-yard field goal attempt was blocked.

“We were kind of feeling each other out,” Gowen said. “I thought we back to doing some of our old stuff of just trying to figure out if we could play with them, block them, that sort of stuff. Then we realized that we could get after them.”

And “get after them” they did, early in the second quarter.

The Southerners put together their best drive of the night marching from their own 18 on a 14-play drive that stalled out at the Panther 22 with 9:59 left to go in the half. Southside had reached the Panther 11 before Alex Bryant held Alex Palmer to a two-yard gain on first down. Then Southside quarterback Koby Rich was called for intentional grounding on second down pushing the ball back to the 22. Two more pass attempts by Rich were also incomplete and Heber Springs took over on downs.

Junior quarterback Adam Martin carried for seven yards on first down, before senior Blaze Nelson took over. Nelson carried the ball eight times before scoring on a 20-yard run on his ninth carry. Cameron’s PAT kick made it 7-0.

After the Panther defense held the Southerner’s to a three-and-out, it was time for a trick play.

On first down from the Panther 43, Nelson took the pitch from Martin, pulled in the Southside defense in and lobbed the ball downfield where both Johnson and Rocky Finney were waiting for it wide open. Johnson took it and raced downfield for the score to make it 14-0 Heber Springs with 3:24 to play before halftime.

“He came back to me, ‘That was an awful pass’, and said, ‘No, that was a touchdown’,” Gowen said of Nelson.

“We had that incredible drive were we ran every play and scored, and we were going to take a shot when we scored (that touchdown). We got a stop, got it back and that’s what we did.”

Gowen said the play had been set up the week prior against Bald Knob.

“We ran that formation three times last week, and they were all sweeps,” he said. “I knew they were going to be aggressive.

“I told him (Nelson) to catch it, act like you are going to run it, and just chunk it up there. It slipped out his hand a little bit, but Rocky and Tri were both wide open. We got it to Tri and he just out ran them to the end zone. That was a big play. It put us up two touchdowns at halftime.”
After a 29-yard kickoff return, Southside appeared to be cutting into that two-touchdown advantage reaching the Panther 10 with seconds remaining in the half. But Landon Johnson tipped the Rich pass attempt and Finney picked it off in the end zone to keep it 14-0 at the half.

“We talked about that play all week to Landon,” Gowen said. “‘You have to get under the curl. You have to get under the Curl’ and he did. He tipped it and then Rocky made the play.”

The Panthers sealed the game early in the fourth quarter when Martin connected with Finney at the Southside 40. Finney made a spin move on the defender, then out ran him to complete the 63-yard play to make it 21-0 with 9:25 left.

“I was probably too conservative (on the play calling in the second half),” Gowen said. “We knew with their coverage if we got the ball to him (Finney) quick, that he would probably have a big play. Didn’t know he would score, but he broke a tackle and did that.”

Justin Bray had a late interception with 3:40 let to play on a screen pass attempt to seal the win for Heber Springs.

“We worked on that all week because they do all of those screens,” Gowen said. “We worked on our d-linemen seeing it.

“We had just subbed him in. He saw the screen and they threw it right to him.”

Heber Springs finished with 307 yards of total offense, led by Nelson’s 148 yards on the ground on 29 attempts.

The Panthers travel to Searcy on Friday to tangle with Riverview for their final regular season road game of the season. A win by Heber Springs would clinch them the conference’s No. 2 seed and first-round playoff game at home against the No. 5 seed from the 4A-3 (either Gosnell or Pocahontas).

TEAM STATS

First Downs: Heber Springs 12, Southside 10

Third-Downs: Heber Springs 4-10, Southside 2-12

Fourth-Downs: Heber Springs 0-2, Southside 1-5

Rushing Att.-Yards-Avg: Heber Springs 40-192-4.8, Southside 39-130-3.3

Passing Comp.-Att-Yards-Int: Heber Springs 2-8 120 0, Southside 8-18 59 2

Total Offense: Heber Springs 307, Southside 189

Sacks-Yards: Heber Springs 0-0, Southside 1-5

Penalties-Yards: Heber Springs 3-15, Southside 5-41

Fumbles-Lost: Heber Springs 2-2, Southside 3-1

Punts-Avg.: Heber Springs 3-50, Southside 5-38

INDIVIDUAL STATS

Rushing: Heber Springs, Blaze Nelson 29-148-1, Dalton Hall 5-41, Adam Martin 3-7, Team 3-(-4). Southside, Brayden Duncan 19-55, Alex Palmer 12-44, Braden Jones 3-13, Koby Rich 2-14, Caden Huskey 2-8, Will Sitkowski 1-(-4).

Passing: Heber Springs, Adam Martin 1-7 63 1-0, Blaze Nelson 1-1 57 1-0. Southside, Koby Rich 5-10 40 0-1, Braden Jones 3-8 19 0-1.

Receiving: Heber Springs, Rocky Finney 1-63-1, Tri Johnson 1-57-1. Southside, Will Sitkowski 5-29, Kilynn Dugger 2-29, Caden Huskey 1-1.

Total Offense: Heber Springs, Blaze Nelson 205, Adam Martin 70, Rocky Finney 63, Tri Johnson 57, Dalton Hall 41, Team (-4). Southside, Brayden Duncan 55, Koby Rich 54, Alex Palmer 44, Braden Jones 32, Kilynn Dugger 29, Will Sitkowski 25, Caden Huskey 9.