It is Christmas morning for the two biggest schools of Saline County as the Salt Bowl game between Benton and Bryant has finally arrived. All the hype and smack talk has led up to one of the biggest football rivalry games in the state as nearly 30,000 fans are expected to show up tonight at War Memorial Stadium.
For the Benton Panthers, the key for tonight against the Hornets will be their defense. In yearâ€™s past, Benton has had a fairly efficient defense but it has been their struggling offense that has put the defense in bad field positions.
This has led to big plays by opposing offenses.
â€śWe have to play better assignment football,â€ť defensive coordinator Donald Fulcher. â€śLast year, we would play two or three good series then two or three plays and then we would give up a big play.â€ť
â€śAnd it always seemed like it was on third and long,â€ť Fulcher continued. â€śIt was a busted assignment about 90 percent of the time.â€ť
After an 0-6 start, the Panthers salvaged their season by making the playoffs for the first time since 2006 after earning wins over Sheridan, Fair and McClellan. However, those three wins were erased last spring when the Panthers were forced to forfeit the wins due to ineligible player(s).
Benton averaged 19 points per game in 2010 with (graduated) Grant Jones at quarterback, doubling its production from 2009. Jones completed 121 passes for 1,530 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Defensively, nine starters return from a unit that surrendered 33 points weekly a year ago.
â€śWe either didnâ€™t line line up right or we didnâ€™t carry out our assignment,â€ť Fulcher said. â€śThe key is execution and repetition.â€ť
All-league running back Wallace Foote (5â€™9, 170) led Benton last fall with 116 carries for 627 yards and five TDs and 44 catches for 394 yards and four scores.
Senior team leader Darren Warford (5â€™11, 215) returns for his third year at tackle after earning all-conference honors. Seniors Nic Garcia and Jacob Benedict hold down the ends.
â€śThey are pretty solid,â€ť Fulcher said.
Jacob Pringle could emerge as a force at linebacker after a productive off-season. Also returning at linebacker, is junior Carson Holloway. In the secondary, the Panthers have three starters returning in Greg Pryor, Collin Simmons and Caleb Davis.
Pryor intercepted three passes at Sheridan and Simmons bench presses 255 pounds and exceptional speed. The Benton Panthers own the overall record of the rivalry at 24-13-1 including winning nine of the first 10 games which began in 1974. Benton also posted 13 straight wins from 1986 to 1998. However, the tide began to shift in 1999 when Bryant snapped the streak, 42-7. Since the series became the Salt Bowl in 2000, the Hornets have gone 9-2-1 and has won five straight Salt Bowls at War Memorial.
Bryant enjoyed its best season since 2004 last fall, claiming its third league title under coach Paul Calley while reaching the second round of the playoffs for the second time in the past three years.
â€śI canâ€™t really worry about the Salt Bowl, like I have in the past,â€ť Calley said. â€śLast year, I knew I had a good football team and I was worried to death.
â€śThis year, I donâ€™t know how good we are. I canâ€™ t really worry about the game itself because Iâ€™ve got to worry about getting these guys better and getting them ready to play any game.â€ť In May, Bryant graduated 36 seniors, its most successful class in school history. Hayden Lessenberry completed 99 of 154 passes for 1,254 yards and six touchdowns in his first year as varsity quarterback last season. The junior passed for 167 yards and two TDs against Little Rock Catholic, and completed 19 passed for 206 yards at Cabot, shortly after his 15th birthday. Lessenberry rushed for six scores, and should carry the ball more this fall as Bryant switches from a Pro Style offense to the Spread.
All-League running back Stephen Clark (1,012 all-purpose yards in 2010) signed with Henderson State last winter. Karon Dismuke could emerge as an all-state running back after rushing 93 times for 643 yards and five TDs.
Senior Sawyer Nichols paced the Hornets in 2010 with 34 catches for 603 yards and three TDs, including a 95-yarder against Benton. Three starters return from a unit that allowed a league-low 17 points per game last fall. Dylan Winfrey (55 tackles, two interceptions and six pass breakups in 2010) and Nichols split time at one corner so they can play offense full-time.
â€śThatâ€™s what Sawyer Nichols and Dillon Winfrey gives you, that big play ability,â€ť Calley said. â€śThose guys are going to have to do that for us all year.â€ť
Winfrey, who is expecting an offer from Arkansas State, plays both sides of the ball for the Hornets. He started at receiver and cornerback, earning all-state honors. Winfrey finished the season with 21 catches for 287 yards and three scores in 2010.