The Rebel defense had just stopped Dollarway on a fourth-and-three pass to get the ball back on downs with two ticks left on the clock. Avery Johnson, split out to the right, blasted off the line and past his defender into open space. Sterling Stowers hit him with a slightly high pass at the 10 yard line. Johnson backed up toward the end zone and was given help when a defender knocked him toward it. Johnson twisted, lunged and had his helmet knocked off as he crossed the goal line with Joshua Lidell draped on him, making the score 27-6. That score helped propell Highland to a 34-24 second-round victory over Pine Bluff Dollarway at Rebel Memorial Field on Friday, Nov. 16.
"That's what this teams all about," said Rebel Head Coach Spencer Hill. "This group of seniors never back down from any challenge. They're not intimidated, and that's just fed down to our juniors and sophomores. We were ready to play. I knew we had to play very well, and at times, we did tonight."
The win earned Highland a quarterfinal game against former conference foe Heber Springs at home on Nov. 23. The fourth-seeded Panthers secured the trip by beating Pea Ridge, 42-21.
By far, the toughest game the Rebels have played all year, the offense was held to two yards on their opening drive, but the Reb defense also made a statement by forcing the Cardinals to punt, as well.
On a third-and-eight, Stowers found Michael Copeland on a nine-yard slant pass to extend the drive, and give Jordan Brewer the opportunity for a 23-yard sweep. A false start penalty backed Highland up, but Johnson bullied his way for a 24-yard gain, and Stowers found the corner of the end zone on an eight-yard sweep. An off sides penalty on Dollarway convinced the Rebels to go for two-points, but the conversion run by Johnson was stopped short to leave the score at 6-0.
Starting from their own 12 yard line because of a block-in-the-back penalty on the kickoff return, Dollarway marched 88 yards for their first score of the night. Jeremiah Young pounded it in from five yards out. The Cardinals failed to convert any of their four two-point plays on the night.
After the Rebels next punt, a quick series of turnovers would change the complexion of the game.
First, the 5-9 Copeland intercepted a Xavier Long pass over the 6-3 Devone Chapman on first down. Highland got to the five-yard line thanks to a Johnson 19-yard run, but a Brewer fumble was recovered by Dollarway. Two plays later, cornerback Cody Odell didn't let receiver Kabion Ento get behind him, and was rewarded with an interception of a Long pass at the Cardinal 42. Although the Rebels were forced to punt, it setup Highland's best defensive play of the night. On third down, cornerback Copeland stole the ball from Young's arms and raced 40 yards for the touchdown. Ethan Hope, who made all four of his point-after attempts, made the score 13-6 midway through the second quarter.
Dollarway picked up a first down on their next drive, but Stowers, who is seeing more defensive action in the playoffs, intercepted a Young pass with three minutes left in the half.
Brewer found seven yards on first down, and Stowers finally broke through for a 20-yard gain. A frustrated Cardinal player gave Highland 15 more yards when he slammed his helmet to the ground after the Stowers run. Brewer and Stowers exchanged runs, before Johnson rumbled for a 12-yard TD and a 20-6 lead.
Once again, Dollarway was moving the ball, but on fourth-and-three, a Young to Lidell middle screen pass was stopped in its tracks by linebacker Dillon Miller to setup the last second pass from Stowers to Johnson.
"That comes with hustle. You've got to create an edge. That's first and foremost," said Hill. "But then everyone's got to hustle down the line. Our defense laid it all out there tonight."
The Cardinals took the opening second half drive 70 yards for their second score, a Long one-yard plunge behind the center to cut the Rebel lead to 27-12.
Highland answered quickly. Stowers gained one-yard on first down. A Stowers to Johnson pass lost three on second down, but Stowers found Deon Stewart along the Cardinal sideline. Stewarts' defender, Henri Murphy, missed pushing the receiver out of bounds, and allowed him to sprint 40 yards into the end zone for a 63-yard touchdown - the Rebels final score.
Dollarway would score twice more, a 10-yard run by Lidell and a three-yard run by Young.
The Cardinals recovered the onside kick after the Young score, but Copeland would get his second interception of the night to keep them out of the end zone.
"You've got to recover the onside kick. We work that every week," said Hill. "But it was a great kick by that kid. It was a perfectly executed onside kick."
Stowers would have scored on a 51-yard scamper, but a block-in-the-back penalty negated it, and a Johnson fumble gave Dollarway one more turn with the ball.
Stowers intercepted his second pass of the night with less than four minutes left in the game.
The Highland offense picked up two first downs to run out the clock.
Brewer led Rebel rushers with 103 yards on 13 carries. Stowers added 16 rushes for 75 yards, and was six-of-13 for 117 yards passing. Johnson had 58 yards on seven totes, to go with three receptions for 36 yards.
Highland (12-0) obtained one additional goal with the win, and that was the opportunity to practice on Thanksgiving Day in preparation for Heber Springs.