(The following game story was contributed by Tony Lenahan, Sports Editor of The Saline Courier)
It definitely didn’t start well for the Benton Panthers in Friday’s 6A state semifinals match against the West Memphis Blue Devils at Panthers Stadium, but it ended about as well as anyone could have imagined. Down 14-0 after one quarter and trailing 21-7 early in the second, the Panthers scored 35 unanswered points on their way to a 63-35 shellacking of West Memphis in a rematch of last year’s semifinals game, which Benton also won, to send the Panthers to their second straight title game appearance for the first time in school history.
“First time in Benton history,” Benton Coach Brad Harris said of the back-to-back title game appearances. “Hopefully we can make some more Benton history this next week. I’m just so proud of these guys. We talked before the game about just wanting to be greedy and have one more win. They deserve that. They were down and out early and getting back to the state championship game, regardless of what happens – we want to win it for sure – but we were going to play football as long as we can with this football team.”
The West No. 1 seed Panthers (9-3), which won their ninth straight game after an 0-3 start to the season, will face the East No. 1 Searcy Lions (11-1) in the 6A State Championship at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock Saturday, December 7 at 6:30 p.m. Searcy upended Greenwood 50-38 on Friday.
“We’re excited to be back two years in a row,” Harris said. “A lot of people probably counted us out after an 0-3 start, but we knew the guys that we had in our locker room and we knew we were ready to make a run at some point and those guys have been really locked in all year. They did a self check. Looked in the mirror after Week 4 and have done a really good job of just punching the clock every day.”
On Friday, the Blue Devils (7-5) made quick work of the Benton defense on their opening drive as senior quarterback Owens McConnell hit senior receiver J’marious Rodgers for a 39-yard gain right out of the gate, and senior running back Cedric Loving took the reins the rest of the way running five times for 41 yards, his final carry of the drive going for a 10-yard touchdown and 7-0 West Memphis lead.
The Benton offense had a tough time getting things going with a total of 3 yards its first three offensive series, with Benton junior quarterback Garrett Brown getting picked off by sophomore cornerback Tamerius Bell, who returned it 23 yards for a TD and 14-0 Blue Devils lead.
“We came out very slow,” Harris said. “Got down 14-0, had a tipped ball that goes into their hands to give them some momentum. They did a great job to start the game. They gave us some things we haven’t seen on film from an offensive standpoint and then we throw an interception to give them a 14-point lead.”
But, Brown’s slow beginning was just temporary. After going 0 for 5 with an interception to start, Brown finished with a monster game, completing 25 of 36 passes for 471 yards and six TDs, his first TD a 22-yard pass to senior receiver Gavin Wells to get Benton within 14-7 with 10:54 left in the second quarter.
The Blue Devils responded with a long drive capped by a McConnell pass to senior Draylon Brown for a 33-yard TD and 21-7 West Memphis advantage with 6:59 left in the first half.
But it was all Panthers after that.
Brown hit senior Braxton Slaughter for a 39-yard TD to make it 21-14 West Memphis and then tied things up with a 43-yard TD to Wells. The Panthers would take their first lead of the game when Brown hit Hudgins for a 68-yard TD for a 28-21 Panther lead at the half and Benton never looked back.
“They had a lot of energy, really stopped our run game early in the ballgame,” Harris said. “We had to make some adjustments with some things offensively and our offensive staff did a great job. We hit some big plays in the passing game and threw it around to a lot of different guys. They were keying on Gavin Wells a lot, so we motioned him a little bit, gave him the football a little bit, but we also used him as a decoy to get it to some other receivers and they made some big plays for us. A big night out of all of our guys. I was real proud of our receiving corps.”
Ending the first half with four straight TDs, the Panthers opened the second half hot as well. After recovering a Blue Devil onside kick to open the second half, Brown hit sophomore receiver Andre Lane for a 32-yard gain and sophomore running back Casey Johnson, who was held to just 8 yards rushing in the first half, scored on a 5-yard TD to put Benton up 35-21 early with 10:25 left in the third quarter.
With the help of Brown’s 3 of 3 passing to three different receivers on the next series, Johnson again capped the drive with a TD, this one from 3 yards out to put Benton up 42-21 at the 6:38 mark of the third quarter.
The Blue Devils cut the Panther lead to 42-28 after Loving’s 15-yard TD run, but the Panthers responded with Johnson running four times for 28 yards and Brown capping the drive with a 10-yard TD pass to senior Braden Murdock for a 49-28 lead to end the third quarter.
West Memphis responded with a 10-play, 68-yard drive capped by a McConnell to Rodgers 22-yard TD to make it 49-35, but the ensuing onside kick didn’t go as planned for the Blue Devils as senior linebacker Jaden Woolbright picked up the bounce and took it 46 yards to pay dirt for a 56-35 lead, practically putting it out of reach for the Blue Devils.
“I think that’s the first time I’ve ever successfully received on onside kick,” Woolbright said. “I joked about it at practice I was going to take one, but I didn’t think it was going to happen. It bounced right to me, there was a gap and they tried to arm tackle me and no one is going to arm tackle me.”
The Panthers put the finishing touches on the game with a 12-play, 88-yard drive which consumed 4:11 off the clock and was capped by Brown’s sixth TD pass, this one an 8-yarder to sophomore Cameron Harris to set the final score. The 63 points is the most the Panthers have ever scored in a state playoff game.
“Garrett Brown finished great,” Harris said. “After that (the slow start) he came up big, made some big throws. Just a big-time effort out of our guys wanting to get back and play again for a championship.”
Johnson finished with 88 yards and two TDs on 16 carries.
“In the second half, they gave us some things and Casey Johnson stepped up and did some good stuff in the run game,” Harris said. “The offensive line did a tremendous job, both run and pass blocking. We were able to hang on. They’re a good team and we were able to hang on.”
As far as the defense stopping the early Blue Devils onslaught, Woolbright said the adjustment was simple.
“We put another guy over there. We had numbers. It made it easier,” he said. “I think we just got comfortable. We had ants in our pants and were sketched out a little bit. We tied it up and got one up on them and we settled in. It was fun to be a part of.”
Brown hit eight different receivers on the night with Wells catching 6 for 118 and two TDs, Hudgins 4 for 127 and a TD, Slaughter 7 for 82 and a TD, senior Jaden Nash 2 for 59, Murdock 2 for 23 and a TD and Harris 2 for 20 and a TD.
“Coach (offensive coordinator Justin) Ray does a tremendous job with the offensive staff and Coach (defensive coordinator Bobby) Winn with our defensive staff,” Harris said. “Coach Ray is up in the box seeing stuff now, and that was probably one of our biggest moves we made in Week 4 was putting him up there and getting him to where he can see the defense. It’s worked out great.”
Now, the Panthers return to War Memorial Stadium to face the Searcy Lions. Facing the Lions will be no easy task after Searcy got by powerhouse Greenwood.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Harris said. “I know Searcy can sling it around really well. They’ve got some explosive receivers, a good quarterback, but we do a pretty good job ourselves.”