(The following game story was contributed by Tony Lenahan, the Sports Editor of The Saline Courier).
Benton and Jonesboro met Friday night for the third time in the last four years in the Class 6A State Quarterfinal round of the playoffs. The first two games were offensive shootouts, with 1,000-plus combined yards in Benton’s 56-52 (2016) and 38-37 (2018) wins. This year, the defenses showed up and the game wasn’t anything like the previous two.
Just like the weather, Friday night’s game between the South No. 1 seed Benton Panthers and East No. 4 seed Jonesboro Hurricane wasn’t pretty, but the Panthers held a shutout most of the game in an eventual 18-7 victory over the Hurricane during a steady mist at Panther Stadium in Benton.
The victory, Benton’s eighth straight, sets up a Semifinal rematch with the West Memphis Blue Devils (7-4), which eked by the Lake Hamilton Wolves 33-28 on Friday, but this time the Panthers won’t be traveling to east Arkansas. Benton and West Memphis will kick off at 7 p.m. at Panther Stadium the Friday after Thanksgiving and play each other for the third consecutive year in the state playoffs.
“Real proud of our guys,” Benton Coach Brad Harris said. “We played a really good Jonesboro team. I thought our defense played great. We had a shutout going into the last five minutes of the ballgame and gave up a play. Good teams are going to find a way to score and they did, but I was proud of our guys for hanging on.”
And Friday’s game definitely didn’t start how either team wanted as Benton (8-3) started with a muffed punt, but the Benton defense, aka Panther Demolition Crew (PDC), forced a turnover on downs after senior Caleb Coffman sacked Jonesboro quarterback Cross Jumper.
Benton was forced to punt again, but the PDC came up big when sophomore safety Cain Simmons recovered a fumble. During that defensive series, senior linemen Brett Barbaree sacked Jumper before Simmons tackle resulted in an injury to the talented Jonesboro QB. Jumper was unable to return and was replaced by sophomore Rykar Acebo.
“When Jumper went out of the game, we knew they would probably become a little more one-dimensional with their run game and that made it a little easier for us,” Harris said. “We were really able to pin them back and go then. I hate it for him. He’s a heck of a player, but it was good for our guys because we knew we needed to key on him.”
The Panthers were forced to punt yet again, but the Hurricane (8-4) fumbled it away to Kyree Watkins and Benton would get on the board the next series on junior Bryan Araujo’s 27-yard field goal for a 3-0 with 56 seconds left in the first quarter.
Later in the first half, the Panthers converted a huge fourth-and-15 when junior quarterback Garrett Brown found senior receiver Braden Murdock for a 16-yard sliding catch. Benton capped the 14-play, 74-yard drive when senior linebacker Jaden Woolbright rumbled in from 8 yards out to put the Panthers up 10-0 at the half.
Again, Simmons came up big for Benton to start the second half when he picked off sophomore backup quarterback Rykar Acebo’s pass.
“I thought Cain Simmons had a heck of a game,” Harris said. “Early, he’s the one who hit (Jumper). I don’t really know what happened on that, but he played a heck of a game. He’s a heck of a competitor.”
The Panthers took a 12-0 lead when Woolbright blocked his fourth punt of the year, which went through the back of Jonesboro’s end zone with 5:14 left in the third quarter. Benton made it 18-0 when Brown found Barbaree in the back of the end zone for a 4-yard TD on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Hurricane would put together a monster drive on its next possession, going 19 plays for 90 yards and capped by Acebo’s 38-yard bomb to junior receiver Will Barre to make it 18-7 with 5:28 left. Jonesboro would recover an onside kick, but its drive stalled when junior Jackson Drewry picked off Acebo’s pass and returned it 20 yards.
“They got the onside kick, tried to make it interesting, but defensively we stepped up when we needed to at the end,” Harris said.
The Panthers went to senior receiver Gavin Wells in the backfield to run out the clock effectively to net the victory. Wells finished with just two catches for 19 yards, but ran 15 times for 66 yards, including 15 for 68 in the second half, coming after sophomore Casey Johnson’s second consecutive fumble, the latter resulting in a turnover. Johnson was still solid running 18 times for 95 yards.
“We went with a little bit of experience,” Harris said of going to Wells. “Casey, we love him. We love how he runs the football. He gets a little bit careless with it and sometimes that happens with a sophomore. He got a little rattled. We went with Gavin. We put a package in with him at running back and Gavin did a great job just taking care of the football. That little sucker is hard to bring down because he’s so little that he’s a little pinball in there and does a great job of keeping his balance.”
Brown finished 12 of 22 for 88 yards and a TD on a tough passing night, with senior Peyton Hudgins catching 4 for 32 and Murdock 3 for 28.
“We weren’t able to throw the football like we thought we might be able to, I think because of the weather, but we were able to grind it out,” Harris said. “Real proud of the offensive line. We made a couple of adjustments and were able to get a little more push against a good defense. It’s not just 22 (Arkansas commit Jashaud Stewart), they’ve got a whole defense full of dudes. Real talented.”
But it was the PDC which shined on a dreary Friday night. Benton gave up just 187 yards of total offense, 57 in the first half, for their third straight game allowing under 250 total yards.
“They’ve had it in them all year,” Harris said of the PDC. “We knew it, but they’ve given up the big play occasionally, kind of like the last play there. We’ve given that up early in the game, but we didn’t do that. We made some plays, we got a break when they had an overthrow getting behind us one time and they missed it. But overall, I’m extremely excited the way about the way our defensive line and linebackers played. We really rallied around the football.
“Jaden Woolbright, again a monster night. (Bryce) Golleher, Coffman, Barbaree and (Justin) Walker. Walker doesn’t get a lot of credit, but he does a heck of a job anchoring and doesn’t get moved. And then the back end of our defense played better. We made them earn it.”
As for next week against the Blue Devils (7-4), which the Panthers defeated 30-17 in the semis last year, Harris is happy for the home game.
“I’m glad we don’t have to go to east Arkansas,” he said. “We’re just happy to be playing Thanksgiving, we don’t care who it is. We’ll play whoever. We feel like we just played a really good team. We think we’re a really good team with a lot of confidence right now.”
(Broadcast Note: The radio broadcast of Friday’s semifinal game with West Memphis will be on 94.1 The Point. Signal Media is contractually obligated to provide Arkansas State University football on 106.7 The Ride and the Red Wolves play on Friday. As a result, the Benton Football Network radio broadcast will move to 94.1 The Point).