SPORTS >>Academy surges late, eliminates Lafayette
By JASON KING
Leader sports writer
Harding Academy was very thankful for the five Lafayette County interceptions during the Wildcats’ 45-29 win over the Cougars Friday night at First Security Stadium in Searcy. HA took three picks from Lafayette QB Stevie Johnson into the Cougars’ red zone in the first half that were converted into scores, and turned two more interceptions into TDs in the third quarter to turn the game into an official blowout.
The Cougars padded the score in the final two minutes with some sensational running from sophomore running back Keelan Christopher. Christopher broke a 65-yard run with 2:51 left in the game to make the score 45-21, then struck again on a 40-yard run after LC recovered an on-sides kick. The 40-yarder set up another touchdown off a seven-yard run from Brendon Fort. The Cougars converted both of the late two-point conversion attempts, setting the final margin at 45-29.
“They really have a lot of good athletes and good speed,” Harding Academy coach Tommy Shoemaker said. “It took us a while to adjust to their speed. They obviously have a big playmaker there in their wide receiver; he kind of kept them in it offensively. Offensively, I thought we played much better in the second half. I really didn’t think we played as well as we could in the first half.”
Shoemaker was happy with the strong performance of the defensive secondary for HA.
“Our defense played great,” Shoemaker said. “The defensive coaches came out with a good plan. Their quarterback threw some passes he probably wishes he could have back.”
The Cougars struck first in the game at the six-minute mark of the first quarter with a 20-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to Scott Hurd on fourth and eight. The extra-point was unsuccessful, making the score 6-0.
Harding Academy punted on its next possession, but got its first of three first half interceptions on LC’s ensuing drive. Matt Lincoln pulled down Johnson’s pass at the HA 39-yard line and returned it all the way to the Cougars’ 18-yard line.
The Wildcats did not benefit from the gift. QB Luke Tribble threw his only interception of the night on third and 10. Ricky Hughey pulled down the pass for LC, but it gave them very poor field position at the 4-yard line.
The Cougars went three and out and punted, giving HA great field position at the Lafayette 31-yard line. After a pair of short runs from tailback J.T. Fisher, Tribble connected with Chris Pack on the left side for a 30-yard touchdown pass at the 3:33 mark of the second quarter. The extra point was blocked, and the score remained tied at 6-6.
Although he had a solid night under center, Tribble’s kicking left much to be desired in the game. He missed three of his six PATs, and failed to convert a two-point conversion on HA’s last score of the first half. He did manage to connect on three extra-point attempts in the last 24 minutes, but one came after an offsides penalty on Lafayette County negated a miss and gave him another chance.
The next Wildcats’ score came off a Tribble interception that was returned to the LC 12-yard line. A screen to Brad London from eight yards out gave them the TD with 48 seconds left in the half, but amazingly, there were still two scores left to be played out.
One of those came just 18 seconds later when Adam Skarda pulled down an interception on the Cougars’ first-down play. Tribble hit Fisher for a 36-yard touchdown pass to make the score 18-6.
Lafayette County only had time for two plays after the kickoff, but that was all that was needed. Johnson hit Hughey on a 40-yard pass on the first play, and then threw up a hail-Mary pass that was brought down by Zach Brown after Tribble, Pack and Chase Ransom all tried to knock it away. Brown came down with the ball as time expired in the half, making the score 18-13 at the intermission.
Harding Academy decided to put the game away early in the second half.
The Wildcats took their opening possession 80 yards in 12 plays, capped off by a 14-yard run from Fisher for the score with 7:49 left in the third quarter.
Lafayette drove on its first drive of the second half, but the Wildcat defense stepped up, forcing four straight incompletions from the Cougars to take over at their own 27-yard line.
HA struck again with 29-yard pass from Tribble to Lincoln with 3:35 left in the third. Skarda then got his second interception of the game on the next Lafayette drive that was converted with a Tribble pass to London for the TD at the 2:17 mark of the third quarter. Tribble’s extra-point attempt would once again fall short, leaving the score at 38-13.
Lincoln pulled down the fifth and final interception on the next drive at the HA 21-yard line. The Wildcats converted nine plays later on a 17-yard run from junior Dee Gibbs.
The Cougars did not have enough time to rally, but Christopher’s 105 yards of rushing in the final three minutes padded the score, and the LC offensive stats.
Tribble had 22 completions on 36 attempts for 289 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. For Lafayette County, Johnson was 14 of 28 for 182 yards, two touchdowns and five interceptions.
The Cougars’ season ended with a final record of 8-5. The win gives Harding Academy a 12-0 record, and puts them in the semifinals against Shiloh Christ-ian next week in Springdale. The Saints were a 35-21 winner over Bauxite Friday night.