(the following game story was written by Tony Lenahan, Sports Editor of The Saline Courier)
In a back-and-forth affair, the Benton Panthers, down 31-24 to start the fourth quarter, came from behind to claim a 41-31 victory over the El Dorado Wildcats on the road at Memorial Stadium Friday. The win, their fourth in a row, keeps the Panthers undefeated at 4-0 in the 6-A West Conference, while dropping the Wildcats to 0-4 in league play.
Tied 10-10 midway through the second quarter, the Panthers (4-3) put together an 11-play, 96-yard drive capped by senior D’Anthony Harper’s 7-yard touchdown run to give the Panthers a 17-10 lead and momentum heading into the second half.
But, that momentum wouldn’t last to start the second half. Benton went three-and-out and it didn’t take long at all for the Wildcats to tie things up. El Dorado needed just one play as quarterback Eli Shepherd hit Devunte Kidd for a 60-yard bomb to tie the game at the 17.
Another punt by the Panthers led to another El Dorado score. The Wildcats used a 5-play, 46-yard drive in only 1:19 capped by Shepherd’s 33-yard TD pass to Steven Tollette who made an excellent leaping catch for the 24-17 Wildcat lead.
Benton Coach Brad Harris said things didn’t go as planned to start the second half.
“We felt like at halftime we had a great game plan coming out,” he said. “But we go three-and-out and bam they hit us on the very first play with a big ball, just a 1-on-1 situation and we got beat. Second series we go three-and-out and they come back and hit us again. I think we just came out a little bit lax, a little flat and thought the game might have been over, which it wasn’t.”
But, the Benton defense got in gear. After another Panther punt, the Benton defense would force a punt and senior linebacker Jaden Woolbright flew through the middle to block it and set up the Panthers at the 4-yard line, which Woolbright, who scored a rushing TD in the first half, rumbled into the end zone again to retie it at 24-24 with 4:22 left in the third.
But the Benton secondary would get beat again as Shepherd hit Tollette with a 75-yard TD to put the Wildcats back up 31-24 with 4:12 left.
“They’ve got a lot more team speed than we do,” Harris said. “We just backed our guys off. We tried to play a little cover-4 and let everything they do happen underneath, and not give up the big one after they busted us in the third quarter there. We tried to play a very attacking defense, tight man cover to press people up, but we couldn’t do it because they have too much speed for our guys.”
The Panthers put together a good drive, but it would result in senior Peyton Hudgins fumbling at the 1-yard line on an extra effort for the end zone. The Benton defense stood strong forcing a bad punt, and Woolbright switched from defense to offense, capping a 4-play, 29-yard drive with a 2-yard TD to make it 31-31 early in the fourth quarter.
The Benton defense dug in as Cade Clark picked off Shepherd at the Wildcat 38-yard line and the Panther offense capped a 6-play drive with sophomore Casey Johnson’s 1-yard plunge for a 38-31 Benton lead with 9:54 left to go.
The Benton defense again forced another punt, and again Woolbright added to his already monster game with another punt block, which Cade Smith caught in the air to run in for a TD which was called back for an early celebration. Benton kicker Bryan Araujo would kick his second field goal of the game, and of the year, a 31-yarder to give the Panthers a 41-31 lead with 5:10 left, which stood the remainder of the game as Harper and Johnson ran out the clock.
“We saw on film where they had one blocked early,” Harris said of the punt blocks. “We felt like we could pressure the middle. Jaden Woolbright does a great job of that. Jaden does a great job of splitting that wedge. He played a monster game for us.”
Harper had a season-high 129 yards and a TD on 23 carries, while Johnson added 11 carries for 55 yards and a TD, 54 yards in the second half. Woolbright finished with eight carries for 25 yards and a huge three TDs.
Held to 63 yards in the first half, the Benton run game, inconsistent this year, carried the Panthers in the second half.
“We went in at halftime really thinking we were just missing a block or two,” Harris said. “We felt like if we could make a couple of corrections with the O-Line, we felt like D’Anthony and Casey could run the football and we were able to do that in the second half and score a few points.”
Benton junior QB Garrett Brown was 15 of 27 for 195 yards and an interception. Hudgins finished with five catches for 75 yards, Harper added four for 54, senior Braxton Slaughter two for 35 and senior Jaden Nash had two for 18.
“We had to fight for our life there,” Harris said. “The good thing about it is we ended up coming back and winning a ballgame when we were down. Real proud of kids like Cade Clark, who came in and got us two interceptions in the fourth quarter after getting beat early.”
“The defense came up big with a couple blocks by Jaden, interceptions to set us up for success. We have to be an opportunistic team and take advantage of those turnovers. I thought we did a good job of that.”
Benton will return home to face the Greenwood Bulldogs at Panther Stadium Friday at 7:00.
“I think we’re a real solid team,” Harris said. “I think we’ve gotten better every week. We’re 4-0 and that’s all that matters to me right now. We’re going to our place next week against Greenwood. We’ll take that and hopefully we can dethrone the champs.”