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

After an 0-3 start to the 2019 season, the Benton Panthers came through with a 36-31 victory over the Russellville Cyclones last night when Morgan Gray was crowned Homecoming Queen. The victory also provided the Panthers a spotless beginning  to the 6A West Conference season at 1-0.

“We’re proud to be 1-0 in conference right now,” Benton Coach Brad Harris said. “We struggled the first three games against some really good teams, but most importantly, we’re 1-0 and at the top of the conference right now.”

Benton sophomore running back Casey Johnson had a monster game going for a career-high 128 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries. Benton senior back D’Anthony Harper also crossed the century mark for the first time this year with 104 yards on 18 carries. But is was Johnson, in late due to Harper’s hand injury, who came up big, running nine times for 29 yards in a series and game-clinching drive.

“D’Anthony Harper took a hit on the hand and he was having a hard time gripping the ball, so we went with our sophomore Casey Johnson and he did a good job,” Harris said. “He had a great touchdown run in the first half, and at the end we were just having him hang on to the football and run it. He runs it very tough. He’s still learning the playbook and everything, but we were glad he was able to hang on the to the football at the end and move the chains.

“Offensive line played a lot better this week. We were able to move the football, run the football, and we haven’t been able to do that the last couple of weeks.”

It was a Johnson 1-yard TD run with 8:33 left to go which put the Panthers up 36-31. It was also that same play in which senior receiver Gavin Wells was ejected for throwing, and connecting, on a punch, automatically suspending Wells for next week’s game at Siloam Springs.

“He got ejected,” Harris said. “The official said he threw a punch in the back of the end zone and connected on it. He got the ole heave-ho and it may be a full game (next week). He may be done for the week. He’s got to be smarter than that. He’s a senior, he’s a little frustrated and a little banged up. He’s a really good player and we need him every down.”

The Benton defense came up huge on the next series, highlighted by an 11-yard loss sack by senior Trae Maxwell, senior Brett Barbaree and Caleb Coffman which backed Russellville way back. A face mask penalty gave the Cyclones better position, but the Panthers forced them to punt.

With the help of Johnson’s running and a huge third-and-10 completion from junior quarterback Garrett Brown to senior Brayden Murdock, for 14 yards, the Panthers were able to ice the game and chew up the final 6:00+ minutes on the game clock.

Benton took a 2-0 lead early when the Cyclones’ punt snap went through the back of the Russellville end zone. The Panthers tacked on the next series after senior Jaden Nash’s kickoff return following the safety went 43 yards to the Russellville 27-yard line. Brown capped the drive with a 28-yard TD to senior Braxton Slaughter for an 8-0 lead after a missed extra point.

Russellville (1-3, 0-1) responded on its next drive when junior QB Brayden Whitford found junior Reid Wolfe for a 7-yard TD and an 8-7 ballgame with 4:48 left in the first quarter. Whitford hit Wolfe for a 57-yard gain on the drive.

Benton blew back, though, on its next series with Johnson capping a 5-play, 56-yard drive with a 31-yard scamper for a 15-7 Panther advantage with 2:48 left.

Senior Russellville kicker Connor Cooper booted a 28-yard field goal to make it a 15-10 game early in the second quarter, but it looked as if Benton take control when Brown hit Nash  over the middle for a 49-yard TD and a 22-10 lead with 9:43 left in the half.

A missed 27-yard field goal by Benton’s Bryan Araujo gave the ball back to the Cyclones with 1:19 left until halftime, and Russellville made Benton pay. A 45-yard gainer from Whitford to Brady Burnett set up Whitford’s 1-yard TD pass to Wolfe for a 22-17 halftime score.

It would be back and forth in the second half that saw four lead changes. The Cyclones took an immediate lead on their first series set up by Benton’s attempted onside kick. Whitford capped a 2-play drive with an 11-yard TD to Burnett for a 24-22 Cyclone lead. But Benton fought back on its next series with a 7-play, 45-yard drive capped by Johnson’s 26-yard TD and a 30-24 Benton edge with 8:18 left in the third.

The defense’s dug in the rest of the quarter with three punts and a turnover on downs, but the Cyclones converted a huge third-and-10 on a flea flicker touchdown when Justin Loveless hit Gavin Graham for a 28-yard score and a 31-30 Russellville to end the third quarter.

Benton was forced to punt on its first series of the fourth quarter, but Panther junior defensive back Jackson Drewry had a big interception to set up the Panthers’ game-winning drive, highlighted by a Brown to Wells 36-yard gain to the 1, and Johnson’s TD plunge.

After the running backs’ big nights, Brown finished 19 of 36 for 242 yards and two TDs. Wells caught eight for 59 yards, with Slaughter reeling in five for 75 and a TD. Nash had just the one catch, but it went for 49 yards and a TD, while Murdock (2-29) and senior Peyton Hudgins (2-23) also contributed in the passing game.

Benton senior cornerback Cade Clark also had two big interceptions in the first half.

“We had some big plays defensively,” Harris said. “We gave up a lot of plays, but we made a few plays with Cade Clark and Jackson Drewry. But we’ve got to secure the back end of our defense. We knew that was a weakness going in with inexperience, but real proud of those guys for making some plays. That was key for us.”

And a better pass rush was key as well for the Panthers.

“I learned a long time from some good coaches that sometimes if you’re weak in the secondary, the best pass defense is a good pass rush,” Harris said. “That’s what we tried to do, apply a little more pressure. Early on we were afraid to bring pressure because we didn’t want to put (secondary) in a bad situation, but we got some pressure. (Whitford) threw the ball up and we got some picks. He got us a few times, but that’s going to happen. We might have to live and die with it the rest of the year.”

The Panthers will take the long trek to Siloam Springs to take on the Panthers from the north next Friday at 7:00. Siloam (2-2, 1-0) edged Sheridan 28-27 on Friday. Next Friday’s game from Siloam Springs will be broadcast on the radio home of the Panthers on FM 106.7 The Ride and live video streamed on the Benton Football Network YouTube channel.