(The following game story was written by Tony Lenahan, Sports Editor of The Saline Courier)
After surviving a 2-point win at Siloam Springs last week, the Benton Panthers returned home and took care of business, shutting out the Little Rock Hall Warriors 48-0 Friday at Panther Stadium. The win is the Panthers’ third straight and puts them even on the season at 3-3 overall, 3-0 in the 6A West. Hall falls to 2-4 overall, 0-3 in the West.
“That’s always big. It doesn’t matter who you get a shutout against, if you can throw a goose egg up there, that’s big,” Benton Coach Brad Harris said. “Real proud of our defensive effort. The second half we played a lot of No. 2s and they kept the shutout intact.”
It was both an offensive and defensive exhibition for the Panthers as they scored touchdowns on their first five possessions on their way to 352 total yards, while the defense held Hall to just 26 total yards in the first half and 45 total with no Warrior play surpassing 9 yards. Even playing with their backups in the second half, the Panthers would score another TD and the defense kept the shutout allowing just 19 yards in the shortened second stanza due to the sportsmanship rule of being up 35 points at halftime. Benton was up 41-0.
It didn’t take long at all for the Panthers to get on the board. After senior Jaden Nash returned the kickoff 51 yards to the Hall 39-yard line, junior quarterback Garrett Brown hit senior Peyton Hudgins for a 7-yard gain before finding senior Braxton Slaughter for a 32-yard touchdown to make it 6-0 after a missed extra point with less than a minute ticked off the clock.
The Panther D held the Warriors to a turnover on downs and the Panther O used a 6-play, 42-yard drive capped by a Brown to senior Braden Murdock 5-yard TD to make it 14-0 after sophomore Gianni Vannucci ran in the 2-point conversion.
Vannucci, filling in for senior D’Anthony Harper and sophomore Casey Johnson due to disciplinary reasons, ran four times for 26 yards during the drive.
Benton senior cornerback Cade Clark picked off senior Hall QB Braelon Adams on the next possession and the Panthers needed just 37 seconds to score again as Brown hit Hudgins behind the line of scrimmage with a pass, and Hudgins hit a wide-open Nash for a 58-yard bomb and 21-0 lead with 5:28 still left in the first quarter.
“We always like to throw a few special plays in there that way people will have to prep for them,” Harris said. “By the end of the season they’ve got six, eight or 10 of them to look for and they don’t know what’s coming at them.”
A forced Hall punt was followed by an 8-play, 55-yard drive capped by a Vannucci 1-yard run to make it 28-0 at the end of the first quarter. Vannucci also hit senior linebacker Jaden Woolbright for a 20-yard gain on fourth-and-1 to keep the drive alive.
“Offensively, we put some points up early,” Harris said. “Was able to throw the football around pretty good the first half. Ran the football a little bit. We ran Gianni early on because we had some issues with the other two guys early in the week. Casey came in and a did a good job in the second quarter and you saw D’Anthony there in the third. We’ve got to get those guys right for next week, that way we can get the run game going a little bit better against El Dorado.”
Again the Benton defense forced a turnover when senior Monterio Mack forced a fumble which Woolbright scooped up at the Hall 30-yard line. Brown went 3 for 3 for 25 yards on Benton’s next possession which Johnson capped with a 3-yard TD and 34-0 lead after another muffed extra point.
The Panthers would enforce the sportsmanship rule two offensive possessions later when Johnson ran in from 3 yards again for the 41-0 halftime lead.
Benton got its final score midway through the fourth quarter when Harper ran in for a TD from 13 yards out.
Brown finished 15 of 22 for 141 yards with two TDs and a pick. Hudgins caught six for 52 to go along with his 58-yard passing TD. Murdock caught five for 47 and a TD, Slaughter three for 46 and a TD, and Nash’s one went for the 58-yard bomb. Harper and Johnson combined for eight carries for 33 yards and three TDs.
“Real proud of Garrett Brown throwing it around,” Harris said. “Hudgins had had some catches for us, Braxton Slaughter had a big catch, Jaden Nash, Braden Murdock, those guys all had a good night so we were able to spread it around a little.”
Vannucci, who had the quarterbacking duties in the second half, completed 6 of 7 for 69 yards and a pick, while running nine times for 39 yards and a TD.
“Gianni does a good job of running the ball from the quarterback position,” Harris said. “That’s his strength right now. He’s still learning the passing game and throwing it, but he does a really good job. He runs the ball hard. That’s what we like about him.
“We moved him in there this week to give him some time and give those other guys kind of an eye-opener for them, but Gianni came in and filled in nicely. We’re really trying to work him in at safety some too, so he’s kind of been a utility guy for us. Real proud of his effort for being versatile for us as a sophomore.”
Sophomore defensive back Cain Simmons picked off a pass for Benton in the first half, while senior Brett Barbaree had 1.5 sacks and a tackle for loss. Senior David Landers also added a sack in the win.
The Panthers will take a trip to El Dorado on Friday to continue 6-A West play. The Wildcats (1-5, 0-3) were upended by the Sheridan Yellowjackets 41-26 in Sheridan.
“El Dorado is a dangerous team,” Harris said. “They’ve got some athletes. We know going down there to play them is going to be a tough ballgame. But I think our guys are gaining confidence and I think we’re getting better week by week. The back end of our defense is getting better and offensively if we can get more consistent, we’re going to be tough down the stretch.”