(The following game story is courtesy of Tony Lenahan, Sports Editor of the Saline Courier)

Starting 0-3 in the nonconference portion of their schedule to start the season, hopes weren’t high for the Benton Panthers this season after making it to the 6A title game last year where they fell to Greenwood. The Panthers remedied that championship game loss last week with a 45-38 upset of the undefeated Bulldogs at home and in the process snapped Greenwood’s 19-game win streak.

The Lake Hamilton Wolves also had an excellent start to this season, beginning 8-0 overall, 5-0 in the 6A West heading into Friday night’s game in Pearcy at Wolf Stadium. But again the Panthers would take down another undefeated squad, upending the Wolves 31-20 on the road and in the process securing the West No. 1 seed for the state playoffs and clinching at least a share of the conference championship heading into the regular-season finale next week against the Sheridan Yellowjackets, which Greenwood took their frustrations out on with a 42-0 rout on Friday night.

“It’s big for us, we don’t have to leave home,” Benton Coach Brad Harris said of the No. 1 seed. “We’re back home for Week 10 and that’s big for us. We don’t have to get on the bus anymore and these guys have earned everything they’ve gotten – conference championship, No. 1 seed. Huge turnaround, really good stuff, real proud of them.”

Senior receiver Gavin Wells, who had his best game of the year with 10 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown, not to mention passing for a 55-yard touchdown bomb to senior receiver Jaden Nash in the second quarter to tie things at 7-apiece, had no doubt the Panthers would claim victory.

“I knew we were going to do it,” Wells said. “We came out slow in the first half and made a lot of mistakes early. Coach kind of chewed us out at halftime and set our minds right, and we came out in the second half and played good football.”

That slow start came on Benton’s first possession of the game when junior quarterback Garrett Brown hit senior Braxton Slaughter for a 25-yard pass into Lake Hamilton territory only to cough it up. The Wolves responded with a 10-play, 82-yard drive highlighted by sophomore Owen Miller’s 37-yard run and capped by sophomore running back Tevin Woodley’s 3-yard touchdown run to put the Wolves up 7-0 late in the first quarter.

“The first series we felt like we had them schemed up with the play with Braxton right there and it hit like a champ,” Harris said. “He’s trying to make a play, transitions the ball and loses it.”

A couple punts ensued before Benton got on the board when Brown hit Wells in the flat, who in turn found Nash for the 55-yard TD to tie things up at 7-7 midway through the second quarter.

The Benton defense forced another Lake Hamilton punt and the Panthers (6-3, 6-0 West) responded as Brown went 3 for 3, including a 52-yard TD pass to senior Peyton Hudgins, who split and outran the secondary in the middle of the field for his first TD of the season. Benton led 14-7 with 4:44 left in the first half and were looking for more when the Benton D forced yet another punt.

More wouldn’t come, though, as Preston Barker’s punt was blocked late in the second quarter giving Lake Hamilton (8-1, 5-1) the ball at the Benton 6-yard line before Miller ran it in to tie things at 14-14, which was the halftime score.

“They bowed their necks on us in the second quarter and made it rough on us,” Harris said. “I was trying to get greedy with the 14-7 lead, used a timeout and I thought we could go down with 1:18 left and get some more points before half and it backfired. We went three-and-out and they blocked a punt on us.”

“We just didn’t take care of business on punt protection, that goes back on me, but I’m going to play to win and not to lose. We felt like we had a chance. You have to give it to them. They’re a great team. They’re 8-0 for a reason coming into this game. Our guys kept plugging. After halftime we made some adjustments, but it was more effort than anything. They refocused their effort.”

That they did. The Panthers used a 13-play drive consuming 5:40 off the clock capped by junior Bryan Araujo’s 31-yard field goal to take a 17-14 lead midway through the third, and after another forced punt by the PDC (Panther Demolition Crew), Benton got back on the board again using an 8-play, 58-yard drive capped by a Brown to Wells 14-yard TD down the sideline to make it 24-14 Panthers late in third.

The Wolves punched back, though, using an 11-play, 67-yard drive capped by Miller’s 4-yard TD to make it 24-20 with the extra point blocked with 6:48 remaining in the game.

That’s all the Panthers needed. Senior running back D’Anthony Harper, who was held to 4 yards on four carries in the first half, carried Benton during the win-clinching drive, rushing eight times for 47 yards, capping the drive with a 1-yard TD to seal the win.

Harper finished with 17 carries for 75 yards and a TD after his slow start.

“The biggest thing is we got on him at halftime,” Harris said of Harper. “We didn’t feel like he was running like the guy that ran the last two weeks. We didn’t feel like he was giving us his best effort and he came out a little hacked off and ran the ball a little tougher. We kind of challenged him as a senior, challenged our offensive line a little bit, and really knew we had to hang our hat on it. Just like last week against Greenwood, run the ball, chew some clock, that was big there at the end. We went for it on fourth down just trying to end the game like that.”

There were two key components during that final drive as well. Looking at a fourth-and-1 at midfield, the Panthers went for it tossing it to Harper for 3 yards and a first down. The other key play was Brown hitting a wide-open Wells for a 36-yard gain on third-and-13, ultimately ending the game.

“I sold the slant real hard and I might have sold it too hard because Brown almost got caught up in a sack,” Wells said, “but once I broke it off I floated away and just came open.”

“The play to Gavin, he did a great job,” Harris said of Brown. “He lost where Gavin was at for just a second, had some pressure, stepped up in the pocket and found him. He made some big-time plays for us.”

Brown finished a very efficient 18 of 24 for 261 yards and two TDs a game after passing 8 of 10 for 209 yards in just the second half against Greenwood.

“He’s been solid for us all year,” Harris said of his QB. “Can’t ask much more from him, he throws the ball around real well. He misses every now and then, but for the most part he makes really good decisions for us. (Friday) he did a good job, scrambled around and got us a first down on a key third-down situation.

“Our receivers made some big plays. Jaden Nash made some big plays, Peyton Hudgins, Gavin, we hung our hat on him in the screen game. He’s a tough little dude and he did a great job.”

As far as the Benton defense in a crucial game, the PDC allowed just 242 yards, 97 in the second half, while the Panther offense put up 446.

“They’ve been averaging 372 rushing,” Harris said of the Wolves. “We knew we couldn’t stop them, we just hoped to slow them down enough and I think we did that. They’re really good at what they do. I was real proud of those guys. They stuck their nose in for four quarters and that’s tough work right there, those D-Linemen and linebackers.”

The Panthers have come a long way from their 0-3 start to the season.

“Coming from 0-3 to going 6-0 in conference, that’s awesome,” Wells said. “At first we had a lot of doubt, but once we started rolling, we got some confidence and we’re going to keep on trucking.”