By LARRY “SCOOP” McCARTY
Stuttgart’s running game overwhelmed the Heber Spring Panther defense during Friday’s 2-4A Conference football game at Panther Stadium.
The Ricebirds (3-1 in 2-4A Conference, 6-2 overall) rushed for 424 yards and four touchdowns, including two 70-yard plus scoring plays, and coasted past the Panthers 38-6 and stayed one-half game behind second-place Lonoke in the conference standings.
Heber Springs (1-3 in 2-4A Conference, 2-5 overall), remained in a fourth-place tie with Bald Knob and Cave City, one-half game ahead of Riverview.
Cedric Hawkins carried 13 times for 214 yards and scored three touchdowns. Deontae Clark rushed for 115 yards on 17 attempts and completed 4-of-7 passes for 50 yards and one touchdown to Kentavian Daniels.
Hawkins, who had 258 all-purpose yards, and Clark combined for 379 of Stuttgart’s 474 yards of total offense.
“We played a very physical team for the second week in a row,” said Heber Springs coach Todd Wood, referring to the previous week’s loss at Lonoke. “We had opportunities on offense and showed flashes from Jonesboro Westside and Cave City games. That was encouraging.”
The Panthers, who didn’t have a turnover in a single game for the first time this season last week at Lonoke, lost three fumbles, one setting up a touchdown, and an interception. Heber Springs had 16 turnovers during the first five games.
The Panthers compiled 273 yards of total offense – 143 rushing and 130 passing.
Running back Parker Brown ran 12 times for 75 yards and caught four passes for 54 yards. Quarterback Xander Lindley gained 34 yards on 11 carries. Gideon Tate rushed five times for 24 yards.
Lindley, who finished with 164 yards of total offense, completed 16-of-22 passes for 130 yards and one touchdown. Easton Cusick caught seven passes for 64 yards and scored one touchdown. Dalton Yancey had five catches for 12 yards.
Brown compiled 129 all-purpose yards, including six kickoff returns for 68 yards. Cusick gained 113 all-purpose yards, which included five kickoff returns for 49 yards.
“We had guys in the right places and executed on offense at times,” Wood said. “When we got into the red zone, we have to put points on the board.”
Wood said he talked with the team before the game about preventing big plays by the Stuttgart offense.
“Defensively, we needed to eliminate explosive plays. We must contain and tackle better. We have a way to go in learning how to get the right tackling angles and how to execute better on defense. Our goals remain to improve every game and get into the playoffs.”
Stuttgart, which overcame two offsides and a holding penalties, received the opening kickoff and drove 52 yards on nine plays. Hawkins scored on a 2-yard carry with 8:17 left in the first quarter. Jack Hosman kicked the extra point for the 7-0 lead.
The Ricebirds increased their lead when Stuttgart linebacker Cade Coats returned a Parker Brown fumble 14 yards to the Heber Springs 33-yard line and set up the game’s second touchdown. Clark connected on a 21-yard scoring pass to Daniels and Hosman’s successful kick gave the Ricebirds a 14-0 lead with 26 seconds to go in the first quarter.
Heber Springs’ only first-half scoring opportunity at the end of a 42-yard drive to the Stuttgart 14-yard line. Tate’s 31-yard field-goal try went wide.
Stuttgart needed only two plays to reach the end zone again. Hawkins’ 79-yard run and Hosman’s successful kick gave the Ricebirds a 21-0 halftime lead.
Stuttgart extended its lead during the third quarter on Hosman’s 24-yard field goal and Hawkins’ 87-yard touchdown run. The Ricebirds took a 31-0 lead into the fourth quarter.
Heber Springs avoided a shutout by driving 80 yards on 11 plays during the fourth quarter. The Panthers moved into scoring position thanks to Lindley’s three pass completions to Brown. Cusick caught a 21-yard scoring pass from Lindley with 8:38 to play. Tate’s kick for the extra point was blocked.
Stuttgart’s final touchdown came on a 5-play, 69-yard drive when A.J. Higgins scored on a 2-yard run with 6:38 to play. Hosman kicked the extra point.
Heber Springs will finish a three-week stretch against conference contenders when the Panthers host first place Harding Academy on Friday.
“We knew this was going to be a tough stretch,” Wood said. “It will not get any easier against Harding, perhaps the best team in the conference. We still will be working on executing better.”
Even with another loss, the Panthers can punch a postseason ticket by winning at Riverview on Nov. 4.
“We don’t want to be in the position that the playoffs may be determined in our final game,” Wood said. “Our plan is to come out and stop Harding, and continue growth on offense and defense. Our playoff fate is still in our hands.”
Senior linebacker Chris Edwards was held out of the Stuttgart game following an injury at Lonoke.
“He could have played against Stuttgart, but we decided to hold him out,” Wood said. “He may play in the Harding game.”
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