By Jim Gardner
The Benton Junior High football teams continued their unbeaten seasons Thursday night with wins over the Russellville Junior High Whirlwinds.
One came in dominating fashion; the other was a nail-biter.
The Freshman Panthers found themselves trailing Russellville 13-7 midway through the third quarter. The game was tied 7-all at halftime before Russellville took the opening kickoff of the second half and marched 70 yards on 9 plays to take the lead.
But the resilient Panthers responded immediately. On the second play following the Whirlwind kickoff, Colen Morrow found a wide-open Brayden Hendrix for a touchdown that covered 59 yards. Garrett Eason’s extra point would give the Panthers a 14-13 lead.
The, with 2:49 remaining in the game, Logan Easterling added some insurance points with a 26-yard touchdown run. Eason’s PAT made it 21-13.
“I’m really proud of our team and the win tonight,” a relieved coach Randy Shaw said following the win. “We didn’t play well in the first half and then let them score on the opening drive of the second half. But we found a way to win. Our guys made plays when they had to.”
Following a scoreless first quarter that saw the Panthers drive inside the Whirlwind 25-yard line twice, only to come up empty thanks to turnovers, Benton got on the board with 3:15 left in the second quarter. Logan Easterling finished off a 9-play, 64-yard drive with a bruising 1-yard touchdown run. Eason’s PAT gave the Panthers a 7-0 lead.
The Whirlwinds responded with an 8-play, 61-yard drive to tie the game at 7-7 with 1:08 left in the first half.
The Panther offense was run-heavy throughout the game, rushing 33 times with only 7 passes.
“We’re usually more balanced, but we thought coming in that we were better up front. Our gameplan was to run the ball more than usual and our big guys up front controlled the line of scrimmage,” Shaw said.
That dominance up-front allowed the Panthers to rush for 210 yards. Morrow (16 carries, 76 yards), Easterling (7 carries, 68 yards), Zak Wallace (9 carries, 66 yards) toted the ball for the Panther offense.
But the key to their success was the Benton offensive line, collectively voted the Fox Sports Arkansas offensive players-of-the-game. Jesse Barker, Dylan Ferguson, Joshua George, Henry Hicks, and Jensen White consistently opened holes for the Panther running backs.
“Our offensive line was a huge factor,” Shaw said. “We felt we had a weight and strength advantage and our line came through in a big way.”
Defensively, the Panthers limited the Whirlwinds to just 35 yards rushing on 23 carries. The Whirlwinds did complete 11 of 18 passes for 165 yards.
Caleb Easterling led the Benton defense with 7 tackles, 3 tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks, and a forced fumble. Fox Sports Arkansas defensive player-of-the-game Hunter Hogue recorded 6 tackles, a forced fumble and a sack. Ty Neathery also had 6 tackles and 2 sacks. Michael Allison intercepted a pass for the Panther defense. The Benton defense recorded 5 sacks and forced 2 Russellville turnovers.
The win improves Benton’s season record to 8-0 and the conference record in the Central Arkansas Junior High Conference to 7-0. With two games left, the Panthers remain atop the standings as the conference’s only undefeated team.
The 8th grade game was much less dramatic as the outcome was never in doubt. The 8th grade Panthers rolled over Russellville 48-0. Peyton Hudgens scored three touchdowns on runs of 21, 26, and 8 yards. Gavin Wells added two touchdowns on runs of 11 and 23 yards. D’Anthony Harper (30 yards) and Daeshawn Ward (3 yards) also scored Panther touchdowns. Alan Vargas connected on 4 PAT’s and ran in a two-point conversion.
The Panthers dominated the Whirlwinds, outgaining them 335 total yards to 19.
Hudgens (4 carries, 92 yards), Ward (3 carries, 75 yards) and Wells (6 carries, 69 yards) were the big ground gainers for Benton. Braden Murdock (2 catches, 28 yards) and Braxton Slaughter (1 catch, 15 yards) led the Benton receivers.
Defensively, Kip Tracy led Benton with 4 tackles. Sean Thornton (3 tackles, a forced fumble, and a blocked punt), David Landers (3 tackles and a sack), Ward (3 tackles and a fumble recovery) and T. Shane Pigue (3 tackles and a sack) led the Panthers.
The 8th graders are now 7-0 overall and 6-0 in the CAJHC. Both teams return to action next Thursday evening at Cabot. The 8th grade game kicks off at 5:30 with the freshman game to follow.