(The following game story was written by Tony Lenahan, Sports Editor of The Saline Courier)

Up 14-13 at the half and 20-13 early in the third quarter, the Benton Panthers couldn’t hold on Friday night against the Class 4-A defending State Champion Arkadelphia Badgers, falling 33-20 at Panther Stadium in the Benton Athletic Complex a year after the Panthers pummeled the Badgers 56-17 in Arkadelphia.

“Arkadelphia is a really good football team,” Benton Coach Brad Harris said. “I’m not taking anything away from them. Our team is not where it needs to be right now. We’ve got to get better. We told them all week these guys were going to be good. For some reason, we felt like they’re a 4-A school, we’re a 6-A school, but we’ve got to understand we’re in a dogfight every Friday night.”

Already without senior Peyton Hudgins, senior linebacker Trae Maxwell and junior cornerback Trevor Standridge getting sidelined in the Salt Bowl, key injuries helped lead to Benton’s demise on Friday as junior quarterback Garrett Brown went out early in the second half, senior running back D’Anthony Harper went out late in the first half, and senior linebacker Gavin Davis also exited Friday’s match, allowing the Badgers to take control with their potent offense.

“We had some tough breaks,” Harris said. “We lose D’Anthony early. We’ve got to go to a sophomore running back (Casey Johnson) and then we lose Brown on a busted blocking assignment. And then we have to go to Gavin (Wells), who is basically our No. 3 quarterback. He’s our best play guy outside and it handcuffed us a little bit.”

Leading by one at the half, it wouldn’t take long for Benton (0-2) to get back on the board. After a bad snap put the Panthers back to a second-and-27, Brown found Wells on a screen, which Wells promptly ran 82 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown and 20-13 lead after Bryan Araujo’s extra point was blocked with 11:09 left in the third.

The Badgers (2-0) responded with a 9-play, 65-yard drive capped by a 13-yard TD run by junior Braedon Thomas to get Arkadelphia within 20-19 after a failed 2-point conversion.

Benton was looking good to start its next series as sophomore Casey Johnson ran three times for 26 yards, but the missed block assignment left Brown unprotected on the next play, resulting in Ethan Savage coming untouched for the sack, causing a fumble which Rickey Rogers, Jr. recovered and returned to the Panther 34-yard line.

Brown wouldn’t return and the Badgers went 34 yards in eight plays capped by senior Cannon Turner’s 13-yard TD run up the gut for the 25-20 Arkadelphia lead. The Panthers were forced to punt and Thomas again ate into Benton’s defense with a 41-yard TD run for the 33-20 lead late in the third quarter, which held for the final.

And with Benton’s injuries on both sides of the ball, the lack of Panther depth was on display.

“We knew that going into the season,” Harris said of depth. “We knew that, we talked about that and you see it right now. We’re thin number-wise this year. We’ve got 80 kids on the football team, but when you cut it right down to it, maybe 30 can play for us on Friday night’s right now. We’ve got to get those guys where they can play.”

The next series, Benton had a 12-play drive going, making it to the Badger 8-yard line, but Wells, in for the injured quarterbacks, was picked off near the goal line, ultimately sealing the deal.

After a tough outing in the Salt Bowl, Brown finished 9 of 14 for 190 yards and two TDs. Wells had a busy night catching four passes for 117 yards and a TD, running 11 times for 49 and throwing 5 for 12 for 65 yards with a TD and interception.

It didn’t look promising for Benton early in this one as the Badgers moved with ease the first series of the game, going 70 yards in six plays capped by senior Kyren Harrison’s 31-yard score for the 7-0 lead just over two minutes into the game.

The defenses dug in after that with three punts before Benton senior cornerback Austin Drewry’s picked off a pass, setting up the Panthers first score of the game when Brown found senior Braden Murdock for a 5-yard TD and 7-7 game.

Benton later capped a 13-play, 98-yard drive when Brown pitched to Wells, who then hit senior receiver Jaden Nash wide open for a 20-yard TD for a 14-7 Benton lead with 4:17 left in the half. The Badgers responded with a 9-play, 72-yard drive capped by Harrison’s 2-yard jaunt for the 14-13 halftime score.

“First series, I thought we came out a little flat and then we played really well defensively all the way up until half,” Harris said.

Harper finished with seven carries for just 3 yards in his short stint, but Johnson picked up the slack with 11 carries for 55 yards. Murdock had three catches for 34 yards and a TD, senior Braxton Slaugher two for 45 and Nash 2 for 30 and the TD.

Harrison ran for 100 on 16 carries and two TDs for the Badgers, with Turner running 16 for 73 and a TD, passing 9 of 15 for 65 yards and a pick.

Benton gets a much-needed week off with an open date in Week 2 before going on the road to face the Cabot Panthers on Friday, September 20. Cabot handled Pine Bluff 42-19 on Friday.

“I don’t know how good we are right now,” Harris said. “I know we got beat by two good teams. Heck, we’ve been beaten by two defending state champions.”

“It doesn’t get any easier. In two weeks we’ve got Cabot. It’s a really good 7A school and then we have conference play. We’re a long ways from over, but we’ve got to regroup somehow and find a way to right the ship. It starts with us as a coaching staff to get it right, but we’ve got to get some guys to buy-in and really just give us more effort.”