(The following game story is courtesy of Tony Lenahan, the Sports Editor for The Saline Courier).
Going into West Memphis to take on an undefeated Blue Devils team Friday night in the 6A state semifinals, the Benton Panthers had a tough challenge to earn a berth into the 6A title game. Tied 3-3 at the half, the West No. 2 seed Panthers dominated the second half to give the East No. 1 Blue Devils their first loss of the year with a 30-17 victory and their first trip to the championship game since 2014.
The Panthers (10-2) will now go against a familiar foe in the Greenwood Bulldogs (11-1) on Saturday at War Memorial Stadium after the Bulldogs handled the Sylvan Hills Bears 31-10 Friday in Greenwood. The Bulldogs defeated the Panthers 62-33 in Greenwood in Week 8. Kickoff for the 6A title game is noon.
“They’re tough, but we’ll play them again,” Benton Coach Brad Harris said of the Bulldogs. “We’ll play them on a neutral field for the championship every day. We’re excited about it.
“I didn’t feel like we played real good defensively the first time. We’ve got to make some adjustments. They’re really good offensively and defensively, but we put some points on them last time. Hopefully we can play better defensively and get a shot at them.”
As far as what Harris told his team after the 3-3 first half in West Memphis, it was all about regrouping.
“We didn’t get on to them,” he said. “Defensively, we played really well. Offensively, we may have missed some opportunities, we didn’t get the crease we were needing in the run game and screwed up a couple of things in the passing game, just mental mistakes. We just talked to them about regrouping. We just made a couple of little adjustments on the board – Coach (Justin) Ray did a great job with that and I just told them to remain calm. We’re in a 3-3 ballgame with an undefeated team at their place.”
The Panthers were to kick off to the Blue Devils (11-1) to start the second half and senior kicker Garrett Eason onside kicked it, which senior Terry Jones recovered it at the West Memphis 37-yard line. The Panthers used a 9-play, 37-yard drive capped by junior Gavin Wells tough run, breaking several tackles, for the 13-yard score and a 10-3 Benton lead with 8:43 left in the third. Wells had a huge play on fourth-and-6 earlier in the drive in which it looked he would be short, but turned it into an 11-yard gain getting away from would-be tacklers.
“The little guy is an ultimate competitor,” Harris said of Wells. “He’s never down until the whistle blows and you can see how elusive he is, how slippery. He looks like a little pinball out there sometimes, bounces around and continues to move forward. That was a Gavin Wells first down right there. There wasn’t much there and he went and got it. And then on the touchdown, he squirts through again.”
On the Panthers next kickoff, the Blue Devils suffered a little déjà vu as Eason onside kicked it again and Jones again recovered it, this time at the West Memphis 40-yard line.
“We made a couple adjustments during the week with our special teams,” Harris said. “We thought that was big. They had a void in their kick coverage and we found it and executed well. Garrett Eason did a great job with the kick, got that late bounce like we wanted it to and Terry Jones did a great job getting down the field and recovering both. That sparked us right there.”
Senior quarterback Colen Morrow ran 24 yards on the first play of the drive, which would be capped by senior Zak Wallace’s 4-yard TD run to put the Panthers up 17-3 with 6:50 left in the third. It would be Wallace’s first of three TDs on the night as he finished with 195 yards on 31 carries, including 20 for 134 in the second half. Wallace added two catches for 5 yards for an even 200 total.
The two teams traded punts before West Memphis got back into it. Devil junior Owens McConnell hit senior receiver Jatavius Tucker for a 31-yard TD to cap a 14-play, 88-yard drive and make it a 17-10 ballgame early in the fourth.
But, it was all Benton after that. Wallace and junior back D’Anthony Harper combined for seven carries and 65 yards on the Panthers’ next drive, capped by a 12-yard Wallace TD for a 24-10 lead with 8:10 remaining. It was the Benton offensive line which led the way, pushing the Blue Devils back on their heels.
“They imposed their will on them in the second half,” Harris said of the line. “They (Blue Devils) thought they were going to dominate us up front and they let us know about it pregame. They were telling us they were going to own us and we owned them in the second half.
“We wore them down. We could tell they were getting tired. They haven’t had to play anybody four quarters like that. Our guys did a great job battling mentally, physically against a really good defensive line and we just wore them down in the second half with two really good running backs and six good offensive linemen up there (James Durling, Joshua George, Henry Hicks, Austin Jones, Tristan Red, Jenson White).”
The Panther D, which was solid all night giving up just 298 total yards, forced a punt and the Benton run game put the nail in the coffin on the next drive, going 11 plays for 63 yards capped by Wallace’s 27-yard TD on fourth-and-3 for a 30-10 lead. The Blue Devils added a late score with 11 seconds left when McConnell hit Tucker for a 17-yard TD.
Benton stuck to the ground game in the second half as Morrow and sophomore Garrett Brown combined to throw just five passes in the second half and the Panthers gained a total of 359 for the game. As for the defense, Benton shut down the big play.
“We were worried about 25 (Devin Olloway),” Harris said. “The Olloway kid is a player. We’ve seen him make big plays on every film we’ve had on him. Kelby Caffery did a heck of a job on him, Devin Griffin. We put Garrett Body (receiver) on him in the slot and they did a great job all night on him. I think he got a little frustrated, so we did a good job of keeping the big play from happening.
“Defensively in the box, I thought Kyvin Carroll, Bryce Golleher, Gavin Davis (starter Zach Parker was out due to injury), all those guys did well. All of our defensive linemen, we rotated about seven guys in there, put a lot of pressure on them, so just extremely proud of the total effort. It takes us all.”