(The following game story is courtesy of Tony Lenahan, Sports Editor of the Saline Courier. A very special thanks to Tony for providing game stories all season for Benton Panther Football)
Making it to the 6A title game for the second straight season, the Benton Panthers were in it until the bitter end Saturday night, but would come up just short falling 28-27 to the Searcy Lions at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, snapping a nine-game win streak and settling for state runner-up honors for the second consecutive year.
“We did a great job fighting (Saturday),” Benton Coach Brad Harris said. “We could have given up a lot of times this year, but these guys have continued to battle for us and do the things we’ve asked them to do all year. Just really, really proud of these guys.”
It was pretty amazing the Panthers (9-4) had a chance to win at all as they shot themselves in the foot time after time Saturday night, turning it over in the red zone three times and wasting what should have been a 98-yard interception return for a touchdown by sophomore safety Cain Simmons with Benton down 28-14 midway in the fourth quarter, but the Panthers refused to quit.
With Searcy deep in Benton territory, Simmons picked off Lions’ senior quarterback Bryce Dixon’s pass at the 2-yard line and returned it down the sideline for what should have been a touchdown to get within 28-21. But, a blindside block 10 yards behind the play and Simmons diving into the end zone after the assumed touchdown resulted in two penalties that wiped out the score and backed Benton all the way to the 48-yard line.
The Panthers made it happen, though, as junior quarterback Garrett Brown hit senior Braden Murdock for a 20-yard gain, senior Jaden Nash for a 14-yarder and senior Peyton Hudgins for an 11-yard gain to the Searcy 2 before senior linebacker Jaden Woolbright rumbled in for the TD to make it a 28-21 deficit after junior Bryan Araujo’s point-after with 4:51 left to go.
Araujo’s onside kick was perfect as Beau Wright recovered it at the Lion 48-yard line. Benton had trouble moving the ball and Brown was sacked to make it fourth-and-16 before Brown found Nash for 18 yards on an excellent catch down the middle to the Searcy 36 for the first down. Sophomore Casey Johnson then ran three straight times, his final one a 20-yard sprint to pay dirt to make it a 28-27 deficit. Brown overthrew his intended receiver, Brett Barbaree, in the back of the end zone on the 2-point conversion with just over two minutes left.
“We went for the win,” Harris said of deciding to go for two. “We felt like it was our best chance right there. People may second guess it and think about it, but we thought it was a good call. We just didn’t execute the play well.”
But Benton still had another shot. After the Benton defense forced the Lions’ first punt of the game, Brown went 5 of 6 to get to the Searcy 32 with four seconds remaining. With the wind in the Panthers face and a 49-yard field goal out of the question, Brown threw to the end zone incomplete to end the game.
“We were debating whether to launch a 50-yard field goal, but we didn’t feel like we had it with the wind and everything,” Harris said. “If we don’t get a little bit of pressure right there, Brown may get it into the end zone, who knows. Braden Murdock did a heck of job going up there battling for it.”
But, again, it was the mistakes the Panthers made throughout the game that really decided the outcome. After the Benton defense forced a fumble on the first series of the game which senior lineman Brett Barbaree recovered, the Benton offense drove down to the Searcy 4-yard line only for Brown to be picked of in the end zone by Daniel Perry. The Lions responded with a Dixon to Damien Young 7-yard TD for an early 7-0 lead.
Searcy made it 14-0 late in the first quarter after Dixon found Dallas Loftis for an 8-yard TD, but Benton responded early in the second quarter as Brown found Hudgins for a 16-yard TD to make it a 14-7 Panther deficit with 11 minutes left in the half.
Searcy came back with a 14-play, 78-yard drive capped by Young’s 1-yard run for a 21-7 lead midway through the second quarter. The Panthers responded the next series and it looked as if Johnson was in for a TD only to be stripped at the 1-yard line by Perry and the 14-point Searcy lead held at halftime.
The Panthers got back on the board on their first series of the second half as Johnson took a 22-yard screen pass from Brown to the house for a 21-14 Searcy lead with just under 10 minutes to go in the third, but the Lions roared back with a 17-play, 97-yard drive, converting two fourth downs deep in their own territory, with Young running in from 2 yards for the 28-14 lead.
After consecutive turnovers on downs, the last turnover that would bite Benton occurred as Brown was picked off in the end zone by Perry again.
“Huge. It’s hard to overcome when you play a good team,” Harris said of the turnovers. “We had three, two interceptions in the end zone and turn it over (at the 1-yard line), and then we get an interception called back. Four plays that sealed the deal, basically, for us. It’s just hard to overcome your own mistakes when you’re playing in a state championship game against a really good, quality opponent. We just didn’t get it done.”
Brown finished 23 of 37 for 262 yards with two TDs and two interceptions. Johnson had a career game with 159 yards and a TD on 29 carries, also catching two for 26 and another TD. Nash led the Panther receivers with eight catches for 102 yards while Hudgins had eight catches for 76 yards and a TD.
Those big games were needed with the absence of senior receiver Gavin Wells, who broke his foot in last week’s semifinal win over West Memphis, and senior running back D’Anthony Harper, who missed the playoffs.
“We had kids like Casey Johnson who stepped up and did a great job for us,” Harris said. “We moved Peyton Hudgins inside, he played the slot. Jaden Nash did a great job for us, Murdock, we had some guys step up.
“I can’t say enough about our guys. They competed all year for us. That’s what got us here. That’s what got us to the very end. We’re down 28-14 (with less than five minutes to go), but we came back. I’m just real proud of these guys. They found a way all year to make some plays for us, we just couldn’t get over the hump.”