By CHRIS BABB | For The Arkadelphian
SEARCY — Harding Academy kicker Kyle Ferrie’s 31-yard field goal as time expired gave the home side of First Security Stadium in Searcy the thrill of victory and hit the visiting side with the agony of defeat, as Harding Academy defeated Arkadelphia 31-28 in 4A State Playoff semifinal action Friday night.
With the win, the Wildcats (12-0) advanced to their fourth straight state championship game, having won the last three 3A state titles before being moved up to class 4A before this season due to the AAA Competitive Equity Factor. Harding Academy will face the Malvern Leopards who defeated the Nashville Scrappers in Friday night’s other semifinal game. The season ends for an Arkadelphia team that won its first 11 games of the season and advanced to the semifinals for the second consecutive year.
The game was the defining example of a game being a tale of two halves. Arkadelphia controlled the first half and the Wildcats controlled the second half with the game-winning field goal at the end providing the difference.
The Badgers led 21-7 at halftime after outscoring the Wildcats 14-0 in the second quarter. After intercepting a Wildcat pass on the first Harding Academy possession of the third quarter, the Badgers looked to extend the lead but were stopped on downs on a fourth down near the Wildcat 35-yard line.
Arkadelphia got another chance to extend the lead on the next Harding Academy possession when the Wildcats mishandled a handoff near midfield. The Wildcat defense forced another turnover on downs after that possession and managed to keep the game at a two-score difference, essentially keeping Harding Academy in the game.
The Wildcats seized momentum and outscored Arkadelphia 17-7 in the fourth quarter, capped off by Ferrie’s field goal.
The game started with both teams scoring touchdowns on their opening possessions, although in very different fashion.
Arkadelphia took the opening kickoff down the field and scored within the first 3:29 of the game. The drive was aided by a 39-yard pass from senior quarterback to Donovan Whitten to senior receiver Carter Babb. The pass took the Badgers to the Wildcat 25-yard line.
After the Badgers drove inside the Wildcat 10-yard line, Harding Academy’s defense stiffened on the first three downs forcing a fourth-and-goal from the Wildcat 3-yard line.
The Badgers chose to go for the touchdown and dug into the playbook.
Whitten handed off to Babb who came in motion from the right side of the formation. After the Wildcat linebackers and secondary bit on the handoff, Babb planted on a wet field and found senior receiver Tripp Campbell alone in the end zone for a touchdown, capping off the 80-yard drive. Broc Currey’s extra point gave the Badgers a quick 7-0 lead with 8:31 left in the first quarter.
Harding Academy was much more methodical on its first drive, taking essentially the rest of the first quarter with its first drive of the game. The Wildcats drove 84 yards on their first drive of the game and scored with 22 seconds left in the first quarter when sophomore quarterback Owen Miller found the end zone on a six-yard keeper up the middle to the end zone, capping off a drive that took 20 plays and 8:09 off the clock in the first quarter.
Arkadelphia’s second drive of the game carried into the second quarter and was aided by two big plays in late-down situations.
On third down and 13 from the Arkadelphia 13-yard line, Whitten threw deep to the left side of the field where receivers Evan Bailey and LaTonnieo Hughes both found themselves in position to catch the ball, but it was Bailey who came down with the catch which was good for a 44-yard gain, giving the Badgers a new set of downs at the Harding Academy 39-yard line.
After a 13-yard run from junior running back Kyle Reed on second and 12 gave the Badgers another first down, Harding Academy put the Badgers behind the chains with the first sack of the night from defensive lineman Levi Mercer, who came into the game as the sack leader in the state of Arkansas in all classifications.
Mercer’s sack set up a fourth and 12 for Arkadelphia from the Harding Academy 31. Whitten escaped pressure from a linebacker blitz that came from both sides of the formation and bought time rolling to his right.
Whitten threw the ball across his body from the 35 into the end zone where Babb outjumped and outreached the Wildcat defender for his first receiving touchdown of the night. Currey’s extra points gave the Badgers a 14-7 lead with 9:36 left in the second quarter.
The Badgers added to the lead soon thereafter after the Badger defense came up with its first turnover of the game. Defensive linemen Ja’Lyus Solomon and Nykisson Wimberly got their hands up and deflected an Owen Miller pass as he was trying to hit a receiver on a shallow crossing route across the middle of the field.
Junior defensive lineman K.D. Young picked off the pass off of the deflection and returned it into Wildcat territory, setting up the Badgers offense with a short field.
The Badgers converted that turnover into points.
After converting on two third-and-short situations, Whitten ran for eight to the Harding Academy 16. On second and two, Whitten rolled out to his right and found Babb on a shallow crossing route from the left side of the formation into the flats on the right side. Babb tried to out race the Wildcat secondary to the front corner of the end zone and was able to hit the pylon with the ball just before hitting the ground for the touchdown. Currey’s extra point gave the Badgers the 14-point lead at 21-7 with 3:05 left in the second quarter.
Neither team threatened to score again in the first half as the Badgers forced a punt and ran the clock out with the ball inside their own 10-yard line.
To begin the second half, the Badger defense picked up its second interception of the night when junior defensive back Kelbern Middleton picked off an Owen Miller pass on the second play of the drive at the Harding 32-yard line.
Arkadelphia looked to add to the lead, but the Harding defense had other ideas. A holding penalty on first down put the Badgers in a first and long situation. After a reverse to Hughes got the Badgers back in striking distance, the Badgers were able to get one first down, but that was it.
After an out route to senior wide receiver Tripp Campbell was ruled to be one yard short, the Badgers brought out the heavy formation to get the one yard needed for the first down. A false start penalty was called against the Badgers, making it six yards that the Badgers now needed to extend the drive. The fourth down pass was just out of reach of the intended receiver, turning the ball over on downs and breathing a little bit of life into the home side of First Security Stadium.
The Badger defense wasn’t done, though, as the Wildcats drove on their next possession. Arkadelphia took advantage of a Wildcat miscue near midfield when Miller tried a reverse handoff that never was secured by the Wildcat receiver. After the ball was bobbled, Badger sophomore defensive back Michael Brownlee recovered the ball for the Badgers.
The Wildcat defense again was able to hold the Badgers at bay and forced a second straight turnover on downs, sending some momentum back to the home side that had swept across the field after the fumble.
The Wildcats put things together offensively on the next drive and cut into the Badger lead with a 62-yard scoring drive that took just over five minutes off the clock. The Badger defense held the Wildcats once they drove inside the Badger 10-yard line to set up a fourth and goal from the 2-yad line, but the Wildcats gave the ball to their strong running back Heath Griffin who found the end zone on a two-yard plunge. Ferrie’s extra point made the score 21-14 with 1:04 left in the third quarter.
The Wildcats tried to keep momentum by surprising the Badgers with an onside kick, but Evan Bailey recovered the kick near midfield, setting up the Badgers with good field position for the third time in as many possessions in the third quarter. The Wildcats held the Badgers and forced a fourth down situation and Wildcat defensive back Cam Pryor reached in and knocked the ball away from Campbell who was in position for the first down reception, giving Harding Academy the ball on the turnover on downs.
The Wildcats kept the momentum on their next two drives, eventually taking the lead midway through the fourth quarter. Harding Academy cut the Badger lead to one point with 9:26 left in the game on a 1-yard run from Wyatt Simmons. Ferrie’s extra point was no good, keeping Arkadelphia in the lead at 21-20.
After stopping Arkadelphia and intercepting a deep pass on third down, the Wildcats capitalized on their next drive, taking their first lead of the game with 6:53 left with Griffin’s second touchdown run of the night which came on a 4-yard run. The two-point conversion was good, giving the Wildcats a 28-21 lead.
The Badger offense – which had been slowed down to that point in the second half by the Wildcats – looked more like the offense Badger fans had been accustomed to seeing on the next drive.
Arkadelphia got an 8-yard gain from Whitten on first down from the Badger 20-yard line, and then a 25-yard swing pass to Hughes that was aided by a late hit penalty on Harding Academy, giving the Badgers 15 additional yards to the Harding Academy 31-yard line.
On the next play, Whitten found Hughes behind the Wildcat defense in the end zone for a 31-yard touchdown pass, giving the Badgers life. Currey’s extra point was good and the game was tied at 28 with 6:09 left to go.
The Wildcats then used the remaining 6:09 to set up the game-winning field goal from Ferrie.
Unofficially, Whitten ended the game completing 10 of 19 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns and rushed 10 times for 34 yards.
Campbell caught five passes for 36 yards and one touchdown, and Babb caught three passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns and threw for another. Hughes added two receptions for 70 yards and one touchdown and rushed one time for 13 yards. Kyle Reed rushed four times for 50 yards. Bailey caught one pass for 44 yards.
Miller was 19 of 26 for 265 yards for Harding Academy. McGalliard caught six passes for 126 yards. All four of Harding Academy’s touchdowns came on the ground as the Wildcats totaled 172 yards on the ground.