Heber Springs' losses came from the top of the 2-4A Conference foes -- Stuttgart, Newport and Pine Bluff Dollarway -- as well as a non-conference game against Pottsville. Yet, the Panthers overcame a 21-6 deficit last week to beat Pea Ridge, 42-21.
Highland scored on its opening drive, which it often does, but, throughout the first half, Heber Springs denied the team the exciting "big plays" it is used to. But the Rebels settled down and adjusted in the second half to earn a 40-14 victory.
"We just wanted to calm our kids down," said Rebel Head Coach Spencer Hill. "We couldn't get in rhythm in the first half offensively. But in the second half we did."
On the Rebels' first drive, Sterling Stowers converted a third-and-four, then hit Ethan Hoppe for 27 yards, before Jordan Brewer sprinted in for the 19-yard touchdown. Hoppe added the PAT for the 7-0 lead with only a minute elapsed in the game.
Heber Springs was not able to answer. They were forced to punt after one first down, but the Panther defense stifled the Rebel offense, as well.
Senior Gunner Nelson picked up 43 yards on four carries for the Panthers, but it was Clint Ligon that posted the 10-yard TD run. Dillon Moore's point-after attempt was not successful, leaving Highland ahead 7-6.
Highland got the first five of their game leading 75 yards of penalties on their next drive, but it didn't stop Brewer from getting his second touchdown, a two-yard burst up the middle. Stowers had a 17-yard dash on third-and-14, and also tossed a 42-yard pass to Michael Copeland to get to the Panther three yard line. Hoppe's PAT was blocked to keep the score at 13-6, which would stand through halftime.
The Rebel defense gave up a 64-yard drive to the Panthers, but Heber Springs couldn't complete the screen pass on fourth-and-five from the six to continue their drive.
Their next drive came to a halt when Stowers intercepted a Michael Kramer pass in the end zone with 4:31 left in the half.
"The giving of yardage, we've done that all year, but our red zone defense has been great and we're not letting guys have big plays," said Hill. "We're making teams earn what they get and our defense has gotten better every week."
Highland's offense drove deep into Panther territory, but couldn't get the score. Stowers threw an interception to C.J. Cannon, but a roughing the passer penalty negated it. Brewer had a 14-yard run, and Stowers connected with Austin Himschoot on a 13-yard pass, a subsequent holding call made it first-and-20. A pass to Hoppe gained 15 yards, and Brewer got four more, but also got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that made it third-and-16. Stowers scrambled for 14, but instead of scrambling again on fourth down, he threw incomplete.
"Heber Springs just does so much defensively," Hill said. "They give you so many different looks, so many different coverages, and whatever they were calling was working against what I was calling."
Halftime is about adjustments. The Highland defense forced a three-and-out, and the Rebel offense quickly showed their adjustments.
On first down, Avery Johnson swept for a 47-yard score and a 20-6 advantage.
Rebel cornerback Cody Odell recovered a Nelson fumble at the Heber 29 on the second play after the kickoff.
Stowers found an opening for a 29-yard touchdown on the Rebs first play of the drive. Hoppe's PAT was wide, but the lead was extended to 26-6 with two-and-half minutes gone in the third.
"It was kind of new play we put in at halftime," Hill said. "They were doing something on defense that we adjusted to. It's a read play for Sterling. He made a good read by giving it the first time and a good read by keeping it the second time."
The Reb defense stopped a fourth-and-two on Heber's next drive, and then linebacker Shawn Young pressured Kramer into throwing a interception to linebacker Dillon Miller on the following drive. The Rebels were not able to turn either stop into points.
Highland's offense, which was forced into a couple of punts, got the ball back at the Panther 44, thanks to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the Heber Springs punt.
Stowers had to roll left, then back right to find Johnson on an 18-yard gain. Brewer twisted and lunged for 11 more, but a holding penalty set them back. Stowers found Johnson over the middle for a 23-yard score to start the fourth quarter.
After the defense forced another punt, the Rebs put together a six-play, 84-yard drive that concluded with a Stowers 67-yard TD scamper. Hoppe's PAT made the score 40-6 with 6:07 left in the fourth.
A Highland fumble late in the game gave Heber Springs the opportunity to move the ball 36 yards in four plays for a Chandler Jones touchdown. Ethan Bly added the two-point conversion for the final score.
Stowers led the team with 18 carries for 183 yards, to go with seven-of-14 for 143 yards passing. Brewer carried 16 times for 83 yards, and Johnson added 51 yards on three carries, as well as, three receptions for 46 yards.
Highland (13-0) will host third-seeded Ozark from the 1-4A conference in semi-final action. The Hillbillies beat the Lions at Hamburg, 38-7, in the first round, then Mena, 33-12, at home, and crushed the Bearcats, 35-14, at Booneville on Friday. Travelling time is just over four hours from school to school.
"Ozark going to be something," Hill said. "I know they have 28 seniors. They start all seniors on defense and 10 seniors on offense. It's going to be a battle for sure. It's good to be home."
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In the Nov. 21 edition of the Villager Journal, a photo caption incorrectly identified Highland Coach Spencer Hill as "Salem Coach Spencer Hill."