By LARRY “SCOOP” McCARTY
Whatever, Heber Springs coach Todd Wood told the Panthers during halftime worked.
Heber Springs trailed Cave City 15-14 at halftime of Friday’s 2-4A Conference football opener and the homecoming game at Panther Stadium.
The Panthers (1-0 in 2-4A Conference, 2-2 overall) scored on their first play from scrimmage to begin the third quarter, plus three more touchdowns before the start of the fourth quarter and pulled away to a 50-22 win against the Cavemen (0-1 in 2-4A Conference, 0-5 overall).
A fourth-down stop deep in Cave City territory sent everything into motion and led to a two-touchdown advantage. Heber Springs then dominated the remainder of the game.
“We felt good about how the offense performed during the first half,” Wood said. “A lost fumble stopped us on one drive at the 2-yard line. We knew if we could control the ball, we could score. We had to fix the defense, made adjustments during halftime and it worked out well.”
The Panthers started the third quarter when the kickoff went out of bounds. Running back Parker Brown scootered to the outside, turned the corner and ran 60 yards untouched with 11:40 left. Quarterback Xander Lindley ran for the 2-point conversion as Heber Springs led, 22-15, and never trailed again.
Two penalties — personal foul and delay of game — pushed Cave City back toward the end zone at the start of the next series. The Cavemen stalled and decided to go for a first down on a fourth-down play at their 17-yard line.
Linebacker Kenan Sneed blitzed and tackled Cave City’s Shawn Walling in the backfield as the Panthers took possession at the 16-yard line.
“Cave City didn’t surprise me at all by going for a first down, even deep in its territory,” Wood said. “They appeared confident that they could run the ball on us and felt they could do that anywhere on the field. Once we got the stop and the momentum, we felt good about how the game was going.”
Heber Springs turned in increased production on offense for the fourth consecutive game. The Panthers had 460 total yards — 281 rushing and 179 passing.
Brown, who compiled 234 all-purpose yards, surpassed his season rushing total (37-179) from the first three games. He rushed 14 times for 191 yards and scored one touchdown.
“The game plan was to bounce out on the sweeps,” Brown said. “We kept doing those plays and it was working. I got good blocks from the receivers to get into the secondary and moved down the field.”Lindley gained 58 yards on seven rushing attempts. Backup running back Gideon Tate carried eight times for 50 yards during the fourth quarter.
Lindley, who was responsible for 237 yards of his team’s total, completed 13-of-15 passes for 179 yards and six touchdowns. He is the first Panther to pass for six touchdowns in a single game since Brandon Loethen against Baptist Prep in 2016.
“We were able to find their weaknesses and kept running those plays,” Lindley said. “We found out they couldn’t defend the sweeps or the screen passes. We hit the passes to Easton, who utilized his speed when getting to the open field and scored the touchdowns. We were trying to work the inside and then open the outside for the sweeps with Parker.”
Cusick caught four passes for 76 yards and three touchdowns, which matched Brown’s total in a single game against Dover last season.
“On my first touchdown, I got perfect blocking by the outside receiver, who sealed the guy off of me,” Cusick said. “The same thing on the second TD. I cut off the block to the inside, and it was a wide-open field to the end zone. Zander saw me in the corner of the end zone on the last TD and put the ball in the right place.”
Dalton Yancey also had four catches for 34 yards and one touchdown. Chris Edwards snagged three passes for 39 yards and one touchdown. Logan Rutledge caught a 20-yard touchdown pass and Brown had one catch for 20 yards.
“We put in a few new plays for Parker where he could get on the edge and into the open field,” Wood said. “Xander continues to execute better every game and getting more freedom to make more plays. He is gaining confidence in himself and executing better. He is throwing the ball better and making good decisions.”
Cave City had 376 yards of total offense — 246 rushing and 240 passing. Bryce Walling rushed for 113 yards on 20 carries and one touchdown. Shawn Walling gained 76 yards on 16 tries and had one touchdown. Kolbie Birdsong carried eight times for 61 yards.
Cavemen quarterback Jacob Moore completed 7-of-12 passes for 130 yards and one touchdown. Birdsong caught three passes for 44 yards, while Shawn Walling had two catches for 36 yards and one touchdown.
Cave City received the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards on 10 plays. Shawn Walling scored on a 7-yard carry with 6:04 left in the first quarter. Millie Beller kicked the extra point for the 7-0 lead.
Heber Springs tied the game at 7-7 by driving 72 yards on 11 plays. Rutledge caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Lindley with 1:57 remaining in the first quarter. Gideon Tate kicked the extra point.
The Panthers took the lead following a defensive stop. Lindley passed eight yards for a touchdown to Cusick and finished a 56-yard series with 11:28 to go in the first half. Tate’s successful kick increased Heber’s lead to 14-7.
Cave City had a second 80-yard scoring drive, this time needing 12 plays. Bryce Walling had a 3-yard scoring run with 5:39 left in the second quarter, and Shawn Walling ran for the 2-point conversion, giving the Caveman a 15-14 halftime lead.
Heber Springs took the lead for good on Brown’s touchdown run to start the third quarter. Following a defensive stop, Lindley connected on a 16-yard touchdown toss to Dalton Yancey. Tate’s kick gave the Panthers a 29-15 lead with 10:07 to go in the third quarter.
The Heber Springs offense scored two more touchdowns before the end of the quarter. Cusick caught touchdown passes of 43 and 10 yards. Tate kicked the extra points. Moore passed 18 yards to Shawn Walling for Cave City’s final touchdown with 29 seconds left in the third quarter. Beller kicked the extra point.
Heber Springs led 43-22 going into the fourth quarter.
Lindley connected with Edwards on a 23-yard touchdown with 9:25 to play, followed by Tate’s kick for the extra point.
“It’s a big deal winning the first conference game and my final homecoming game,” Cusick said. “It felt good leaving the field after winning.”
“This win will give us a lot of momentum and carry over to the next game,” he said. “We came out for the second half and got the job done.”
Heber Springs will play the first of back-to-back conference road games at Bald Knob (0-0 in 2-4A Conference, 1-3 overall) on Friday. The Panthers will be open on Oct. 7 and then play at Lonoke on Oct. 14.
“I’m looking forward going to next week’s game,” Wood said. “It’s going to be a battle. I remember last year when Xander was injured, but we still pulled out the game. We want to put things together and be 2-0 going into the off week.”
Brought to you by Business Booster Tate Family Chiropractic