By LARRY “SCOOP” McCARTY
CLINTON — Time ran out on the Heber Springs Panthers to win their first Battle of the Little Red trophy at Jim Tumlison Field Friday.
Quarterback Matthew Cook’s pass for Diego Rubio was batted away by Clinton defenders Spencer Banister and Harley Tobin at the goal-line as the Panthers lost to the Yellowjackets 32-26 in a 2-4A Conference football game.
Clinton’s Nick Epley scored the winning touchdown on a 52-yard run with 50 seconds left in the game.
Cook started Heber Springs’ final drive with a 14-yard completion to Easton Cusick for a first down at the Clinton 47-yard line., Parker Brown, who was playing his first high school game, caught a 16-yard pass, advancing the ball to the 31. A five-yard penalty against Clinton set up the game’s final play.
“We were able to move down the field on the drive with different guys at receiver,” Heber Springs coach Todd Wood said. “We had a shot on the final play and that is all you can ask of your team. I told Matthew before the play to throw into the end zone.”
Brown was referring to Nathan McKee, the leading receiver for the Panthers, who was injured during the third quarter and unable to return.
Clinton forced a punt and drove 71 yards for the winning touchdown with 1:33 left in the game. Nick Epley caught a 13-yard pass from Harley Tobin for a first down at the Yellowjacket 45-yard line. Tobin kept the ball for three years before and threw an incomplete pass before Epley’s touchdown run on third-and-seven.
“We knew they could pass or run well,” Wood said. “Clinton has a good quarterback who can run or pass and a lot of speed in the backfield. It was a great call by them with less than a minute left. We were anticipating a pass. You have to make the tackle in that situation and we didn’t do it on that play.”
The teams played nose-to-nose during the first half with Clinton gaining one more yard (163-162) than Heber Springs. The Panthers rushed for 88 yards and passed for 74, while the Yellowjackets had 92 yards rushing and 71 passing.
For the game, Clinton outgained the Panthers 425-354 yards in total offense and held a 23-18 advantage in first downs. Heber Springs rushed for 201 yards and passed for 153. The Yellowjackets had 277 yards on the ground and 148 passing.
Heber Springs converted 1-of-10 opportunities on third down and 4-of-6 on fourth down. Clinton was 6-of-10 on third down and 1-of-2 on fourth down.
Cook completed 15-of-32 passes for 153 yards and one touchdown, and rushed 17 times for 167 yards and one touchdown. He accounted for 320 all-purpose yards. Rubio had 28 yards rushing and scored two touchdowns. McKee caught eight passes for 91 yards. Cusick had three catches for 39 yards and one touchdown. Parker Brown caught two passes for 18 yards.
Tobin completed 8-of-15 passes for 148 yards and one touchdown for Clinton. Epley rushed 18 times for 149 yards and one touchdown.
Clinton received the opening kickoff and marched 59 yards on seven plays for the early lead. Jacob Hutto capped the drive by scoring on a 5-yard run with 9:06 in the first quarter. Aldrick Infante kicked the extra point for the 7-0 lead.
Heber Springs tied the game on a 10-play, 57-yard drive in the second quarter. Cook’s 30-yard carry put the Panthers in scoring position at the Clinton 15-yard line.
The Panthers needed a fourth-down conversion to keep the drive alive. McKee caught a 7-yard pass from Cook for a first-and-goal at the 3-yard line. Two plays later, Rubio dove into the end zone from one yard out with 8:43 left in the first half. Gus Hannah kicked the extra point for the 7-7 tie.
Clinton regained the advantage on its next possession when Infante kicked a 32-yard field goal with 4:07 to go for a 10-7 lead.
But the Panthers didn’t wait long to respond. Heber Springs drove 62 yards on 10 plays, with Cook connecting on a 20-yard touchdown pass to Cusick. Hannah kicked the extra point for the 14-10 lead with 38 seconds remaining until halftime.
Clinton pulled to within one point on Infante’s 40-yard field game with two seconds left as Heber Springs led 14-13 at halftime.
Heber Springs started the second half at its 48 thanks to McKee’s kickoff return. Cook passed twice to McKee for a first-and-goal at the 4. Two plays later, Rubio scored from the 1, increasing the lead to 20-13. The 2-point conversion was no good.
Clinton pulled to within one point before the end of the third quarter. Tobin capped a six-play, 35-yard drive by scoring on a 1-yard sneak. The Panthers kept their 20-19 lead on Clinton’s bad snap on the try for the extra point.
Heber Springs increased its lead when Thad Bray recovered a Clinton fumble at the Panther 10-yard line. The Yellowjackets held on the next three plays as the Panthers faced a fourth-and-eight at the 12.
A fourth-down conversion helped Heber Springs to increase its lead. The Panthers elected to go for the first down. Cook took the snap, went to his left and broke to the outside. He outran the Yellowjacket defense and scored on an 88-yard run with 7:16 left in the game. After a failed 2-point play, the Panthers led, 26-19.
“We had two choices,” Wood said. “We could keep moving the ball down the field or give it back Clinton on a short field where it probably would score quickly. It was not a tough decision.”
Clinton tied the game when Brody Emberton caught a 21-yard touchdown pass from Tobin with 3:48 left. Infante kicked the extra point to tie the game at 26-26.
Epley scored the winning touchdown with 50 seconds left, and Clinton held the Panthers out of the end zone on the game’s final series.
Heber Springs (1-5 conference, 2-7 overall) will host Little Rock Mills in the final regular season game on Friday.
“Mills will be big and physical,” Wood said. “The game will show how much character that we have. We have to come back with our heads high and finish the regular season strong.”
SCORING Heber Springs (1-5, 2-7) 0 14 6 6 - 26 Clinton (2-4, 2-7) 7 6 6 13 - 32 FIRST QUARTER Clinton, Jacob Hutto 5-yard run (Aldrick Infante kick), 9:06 SECOND QUARTER Heber Springs, Diego Rubio 1-yard run (Gus Hannah kick), 8:43 Clinton, Infante 32-yard field goal, 4:07 Heber Springs, Matthew Cook to Easton Cusick 20-yard pass (Hannah kick), :38 Clinton, Infante 40-yard field goal, :02 THIRD QUARTER Heber Springs, Diego Rubio 1-yard run (pass failed), 10:24 Clinton, Harley Tobin 1-yard run (run failed), :02 FOURTH QUARTER Heber Springs, Cook 88-yard run (run failed), 5:30 Clinton, Tobin to Brody Emberton 21-yard pass (Infante kick), 3:48 Clinton, Nick Epley 52-yard run (kick failed), :50 TEAM STATS First Downs by Rush: Heber Springs 8, Clinton 14 First Downs by Pass: Heber Springs 8, Clinton 8 First Downs by Penalty: Heber Springs 2, Clinton 1 Total First Downs: Heber Springs 18, Clinton 23 Third-Down Conversions: Heber Springs 1/10, Clinton 6/10 Fourth-Down Conversions: Heber Springs 4/6, Clinton 1/2 Red-Zone Conversions: Heber Springs 5/3, Southside 1/0 Time of Possession: Heber Springs 22:02, Clinton 25:58 Fumbles/Lost: Heber Springs 2/1, Clinton 2/2 Turnovers: Heber Springs 1, Clinton 2 Points Off Turnovers: Heber Springs 6, Clinton 0 Penalties: Heber Springs 4/40, Clinton 4/41 Rushing: Heber Springs 27/201/7.4, Clinton 47/277/5.9 Passing: Heber Springs 15/32-153-1/0, Clinton 8/15-148-1/0 Plays/Total Offense/YPP: Heber Springs 59/354/6, Clinton 62/425/6.9 Sacks/Yards Lost: Heber Springs 0/0, Clinton 2/11 Punts: Heber Springs 2/60, Clinton 1/34 Inside 20: None INDIVIDUAL STATS OFFENSE RUSHING: Heber Springs, Matthew Cook 17/167/1, Diego Rubio 9/28/2, Nathan McKee 1/6. Clinton, Nick Epley 18/149/1, Jacob Hutto 15/64/1, Brody Emberton 4/33, Harley Tobin 10/29/1, Cody Davis 1/2. PASSING: Heber Springs, Matthew Cook 15/32-153-1/0. Clinton, Harley Tobin 8/15-148-1/0. RECEIVING: Heber Springs, Nathan McKee 8/91, Easton Cusick 3/39, Parker Brown 2/18, Jackson West 1/3, Diego Rubio 1/2. Clinton, Brody Emberton 3/65/1, Nick Epley 3/43, Jasper Burgess 1/28, Blaine Emberton 1/12. TOTAL OFFENSE: Heber Springs, Matthew Cook 320, Diego Rubio 28, Nathan McKee 6. Clinton, Harley Tobin 182, Nick Epley 149, Jacob Hutto 64, Brody Emberton 33, Cody Davis 2. PUNT RETURNS: Clinton, Jacob Hutto 1/4 KICK RETURNS: Heber Springs, Diego Rubio 2/33, Nathan McKee 1/38, Parker Brown 1/4, Gus Hannah 1/0, Austin Winchester 1/0. Clinton, Cody Davis 2/31, Nick Epley 2/21, Brody Emberton 1/11. FUMBLE RETURNS: None INTERCEPTION RETURNS: None ALL-PURPOSE YARDS: Heber Springs, Matthew Cook 167, Nathan McKee 135, Diego Rubio 53, Easton Cusick 39, Parker Brown 22, Jackson West 3. Clinton, Nick Epley 213, Brody Emberton 109, Jacob Hutto 68, Cody Davis 33, Jasper Burgess 28, Blaine Emberton 12. SCORING: Heber Springs, Diego Rubio 12, Matthew Cook 6, Easton Cusick 6, Gus Hannah 2 (2/2 XPA). Clinton, Aldrick Infante 8 (2/3 XPA, 2/2 FGA. Made: 32, 40), Nick Epley 6, Jacob Hutto 6, Harley Tobin 6, Brody Emberton 6. DEFENSE PUNTS/YARDS/AVERAGE/INSIDE THE 20/BLOCKED: Heber Springs, Matthew Cook 2/60/30/0/0. Clinton, Aldrick Infante 1/34/34/0/0 SACKS/YARDS LOST: Clinton, Jasper Burgess 1/8, Josh Witt 1/6 FUMBLE RECOVERIES: Heber Springs, Isaac King, Thad Bray. Clinton, Ashton Hoyle. INTERCEPTIONS: None