SPRINGFIELD — In a game that featured a little bit of everything, it was a sudden change of momentum late in the third quarter that might have been the difference on Friday as the Hillcrest Hornets edged Lebanon, 43-40, in a key Ozark Conference showdown in Springfield.
With the ‘Jackets leading 40-28 with seconds remaining in the third quarter, an inadvertent whistle voided what would have been a third consecutive fumble recovery by the Lebanon defense.
The Hornets took advantage by stifling the ‘Jacket offense in the fourth and rallying to score a pair of touchdowns, erasing Lebanon’s 12-point third quarter lead.
Hillcrest quarterback Jonah Hill overcame five turnovers in the contest to help the rally the Hornet offense in the final frame, scoring one touchdown and setting up another with a long pass play.
The ‘Jackets had trailed 28-21 with 7:34 remaining in the third quarter but were able to score three touchdowns in the final 1:50 of the third quarter to take a 12-point lead and swing the momentum in their favor.
It started when the ‘Jackets defense held Hillcrest to three plays and a punt with 5:26 remaining and marched 55 yards on nine plays to tie the game. Sophomore running back Elza Evans reeled off consecutive runs of 16 and 10 yards to set up a three-yard by Brock West run with 1:50 remaining.
On its ensuing possession, Hill fumbled the shotgun snap on the Hornets first play from scrimmage and the ball was scooped up by LHS junior Austin Knight and returned 15 yards. The score gave the ‘Jackets a 34-28 lead after they missed the extra point.
Again, Hillcrest went backwards. This time they started near midfield after recovering a short kickoff by LHS. The ‘Jackets tackled junior Juwan Johnson for a 10-yard loss on the first play, then Hill muffed another shotgun snap. This time the ball was kicked around in the backfield and eventually awarded to LHS.
Confusion ensued on the play after LHS attempted to lateral the ball forward, only to drop it near the Hillcrest goal line. Although Hillcrest recovered the ball deep in its own territory, the ball was awarded to the ‘Jackets at the Hillcrest 16. On the following play West scored with 27 seconds remaining in the third quarter to give the ‘Jackets a 40-28 lead.
The second fumble by Hill was one of a slew of hotly contested calls in a contest that featured 21 penalties, nine turnovers and more than 200 penalty yards.
After West scored, it appeared as though LHS had recovered a fumble with just second remaining in the third quarter as a Hillcrest up-man muffed a fair-catch on a short kick, only to have an inadvertent whistle give the Hornets new life.
A 48-yard pass play from Hill to Matt Rush set up a 13-yard run by Johnson and Hillcrest cut Lebanon’s lead to 40-35 less than a minute into the fourth quarter.
While the fourth quarter momentum belonged to the Hornets, the ‘Jackets opportunities to recapture it. After Hillcrest scored to pull within 40-35, the ‘Jackets had the ball and a chance to chew up clock and perhaps extend its lead. Later, after Hillcrest had taken a 43-40 lead, the ‘Jackets twice had the ball and an opportunity to put together a game-winning drive.
“We had opportunities to win this game, so it stings,” Christian said. “If we had got beat 49-0, it might feel a little different where, you tip your cap to Hillcrest, but we feel we should have won the ballgame.
“We just have to look at it and improve and there is no other answer other than improvement in all facets.”
With Lebanon leading 40-35 following Johnson’s score, Lebanon started a drive from its own 30 with 11:04 remaining with a false start on the first play from scrimmage. The ‘Jackets managed to rally briefly and pick up a first down at their own 39 after runs of 14 and 6 yards by West. From there though the ‘Jackets offense sputtered. West was tackled near the line of scrimmage, then LHS threw an incomplete pass and were tackled for a yard loss on third-and-10.
On fourth down, the ‘Jackets were forced to punt from their own 31 with 8:40 remaining.
“We needed to move the chains and answer, but we didn’t do that,” Christian said. “But there are so many other things throughout the course of the game that hurt us.”
Hillcrest took over at its own 18 put together a game-winning drive, as they picked up two crucial first downs on third-and-long. The second conversion came on a diving catch by Rush that picked up 16 yards on third-and-10 and moved the ball near midfield.
A few plays later, LHS was called for a horse collar penalty in the backfield, which helped the Hornets move the ball deep into LHS territory.
Hill, an Arkansas State commit who is playing quarterback for the first time this year, capped what would be the game-winning drive with runs of 8, 7 and 3 yards. He then ran in the two-point conversion, giving Hillcrest a three-point cushion with 4:22 remaining.
“The one thing that I will say is I thought our kids played hard,” Christian said. “They played with a lot of courage and fought all night. There was a ton of ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys, (but) they kept playing.
“We had some injury issues and we had some guys playing in different roles, but I think we went through that pretty well.”
Lebanon (4-1 overall, 4-1 Ozark Conference) twice had an opportunity to put a late game winning drive together, but came up short. They had the ball at their own 37 with 4:13 remaining after the Hornets took the lead, but saw a chop-block penalty and faced a third-and-20.
With 2:51 remaining, the ‘Jackets punted the ball away again.
The LHS defense gave it right back to them though, stuffing the Hornets on three straight running plays.
With 1:45 remaining, the ‘Jackets took over at their own 27 with another chance to tie or win the game.
Perhaps fittingly, the game ended on a turnover. After a one-yard run by LHS on first down, Hillcrest junior Juwan Johnson came up with a diving interception to end the game.
It was the ninth turnover of the contest for the two teams.
Christian lamented the sloppy nature of the game, with turnovers, penalties and other issues. The game started in ominous fashion when the Hornets scored on a muffed punt attempt by the ‘Jackets.
“It started right from the very beginning with the punt touchdown,” Christian said. “There was a lot of issues that we created and stubbed our own toe. I told the guys out in the huddle (after the game) one of the things we’re not going to do is make excuses. We’re going to look at things and try to improve as a football team.
“Up to this point we had played pretty clean football, and we’ve been winning ballgames. But when you don’t play clean football, you ask for these kinds of situations and that is kind of the bottom line.”
Lebanon gained less than 200 total yards after entering the game averaging nearly 500. And while the ‘Jackets finished the contest with 40 points, many of those were set up either by five Hillcrest turnovers or long kick returns. Junior Dylan Bradshaw had several big returns in the game, and set LHS up with great field position on several occasions.
Throughout much of the contest, a smaller, quicker Hillcrest team was quick to the ball on defense, bottling up the ‘Jackets running attack.
“Live it felt that way, but I don’t want to make a complete distinction without looking at video tape,” Christian said. “We definitely had some issues running the football, so you have to tip your cap to them.”
Lebanon will host West Plains on Homecoming Friday at Yellowjacket Stadium. The Zizzers are 0-5 and are coming off a 35-14 loss to Joplin.