Trailing 34-30 with 1:27 left in the contest, the Clinton Yellowjackets stormed down the football field and put together the game-winning drive after senior quarterback Weston Amos hooked up with Austin Drake for a 15-yard touchdown pass, giving the host Yellowjackets their third straight victory in the Battle of the Little Red series.
Both teams opened the game with fireworks, with Clinton scoring on their first play from scrimmage, a 77-yard touchdown pass from Amos to Drake just 16 seconds into the affair.
Just two minutes later, the Panthers countered with a 35-yard connection between junior quarterback Adam Martin and classmate Tri Johnson for a score, going up 7-6 after senior kicker Julian Cameron’s extra point attempt sailed through the uprights, taking the lead into the second quarter of play.
After both teams kept each other at bay for the better part of the second frame, the Yellowjackets got back on the board with 3:09 left in the half after Amos found the end zone on a quarterback-keep play from 13 yards out, taking back the lead at 12-7 after coming up short on the two-point conversion attempt.
Heber Springs once again answered, this time on a 40-yard touchdown run from senior back Blaze Nelson with 57 ticks left on the clock to seize a 14-12 advantage, as the lead would switch hands once again on Amos’ bullet pass to Keaton Gresham for a 19-yard touchdown, taking a 18-14 edge into the locker room.
Amos added to his cause to begin the second half of action, putting six more points up on the scoreboard on an 11-yard QB keep run to make it a two-possession game at 24-14.
Nelson would keep Heber Springs in it with 3:05 left in the third quarter, punching it in from one yard out to pull within four, following it up midway through the final twelve minutes with a three-yard rush to take back the lead at 27-24 on a seven-play, 63-yard drive.
The Panthers would push the Yellowjackets to the brink, taking them to fourth and 10 before Amos used his quickness and vision to find Drake for a 40-yard finish in the end zone, leaving the door open for Heber Springs following Amos’ failed attempt to run it in for two.
With 3:49 left in the game, the Panthers used a consistent movement of the ball from Martin and Nelson to get the ball inside the red zone at the nine-yard line, with Nelson finding the promised land once more with 1:27 to go, with Cameron providing the extra point for a 34-30 lead.
On the ensuing drive, the Yellowjackets showed why they are in the conversation for the Class 3A state championship, gaining 65 yards on five plays with the biggest play coming from Amos, who came up in the clutch on a pass to Drake on a 15-yard completion that led to a touchdown, leaving the Panthers with 29 seconds left and two timeouts.
Nelson brought the ball across midfield to the 42-yard line, picking up 10 more yards on a run before calling a timeout. Heber Springs elected to go for the victory via field goal, a 47-yard attempt from Cameron, whose kick fell just short as time expired and Clinton sealed the victory.
“I’m proud of how this team came out and fought hard tonight,” exclaimed Panther head coach Darren Gowen, who enters his fourth season at the helm of the football program. “I thought we had the more physical team. They hit us with some big pass plays, but at the end of the game, we had opportunities and just ran out of time.”
Nelson finished the contest with 306 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns, 264 of which came through the run game, as the Panthers finished with a sum of 412 yards. Martin followed with 85 passing yards on 8 of 14 attempts, adding 26 yards on the ground. Junior linebacker Landon Johnson led the defense with 10 total tackles.
“Clinton did some things different on defense they don’t usually do, so it took us a little bit to get adjusted to it,” added Gowen. “I thought our offensive line did a terrific job, especially in the second half. The turning point in the game was not coming out with the ball on that turnover to start the third quarter. The kids didn’t give up despite that, and stayed tough and gave us a good shot to win it at the end.”
Amos led the Clinton charge with six touchdowns, four of which came through the air, totaling 294 yards on the night. Drake hauled in four of those touchdown passes to go with 190 receiving yards. With the victory, the Yellowjackets now own a 39-38-5 all-time edge in the series, ranked third in Class 3A by Hooten’s and second in the newly-instilled Arkansas Sports Writers poll.
“Our kids wanted to win really bad, but this is something we’ll be able to build off of moving forward when we look back at the film. We played better tonight than the last two times we played Clinton. I have to tip my cap to Coach [Chris] Dufrene and his staff. They won 12 games last year and they brought a big core back for this season.”
The Panthers (0-1) will return home Friday night to host Greenbrier in a battle of Panthers, with the guests clinging to a four-game winning streak since 2014.