Winning their past six games after an 0-3 start to the season, the Benton Panthers will look for number seven in a row tonight when they take on the Sheridan Yellowjackets at Panther Stadium on senior night in Benton. The Panthers will also be looking to accomplish something they haven’t done since 2014 – win an outright conference championship.
Taking down 6A power Greenwood 45-38 two weeks ago at home for the first time and defeating previously undefeated Lake Hamilton 31-20 on the road last week, the Panthers, which secured the West No. 1 seed, have a chance to do just that since upsetting the Pine Bluff Zebras 39-36 in the final week of the 2014 regular season to finish undefeated in the then 6A South.
With Lake Hamilton and Greenwood, which let out their frustration against the Yellowjackets 42-0 last week, playing each other tonight to determine the 6A West No. 2 seed, Benton Coach Brad Harris and company have no plans of sharing the conference championship.
“I think it’s big-time for us,” Harris said of the outright title. “Like I told them (Wednesday) at the end of practice, ‘You gotta finish.’ That’s kind of been the battle cry this week is finishing. We know we’ve got the No. 1 seed wrapped up, but we don’t want to share the conference championship with anybody.
“Even though we’ve beat them (Greenwood and Lake Hamilton) head-to-head, we want to finish 7-0 and be on a seven-game win streak going into the playoffs. You don’t ever want to lose that last game going into the playoffs. You want to have some momentum. (Tonight) is a huge night for us momentum-wise to win an outright conference championship.”
And just like last week against the Wolves, the Panthers will be taking on a heavy ground game tonight against the Jackets as Sheridan has two running backs with over 800 yards, with junior Peyton Edwards leading the way with 832 yards and 13 touchdowns, and senior Alden Lucas a close second with 827 yards and two TDs. Trace Watkins follows with 435 yards and nine TDs on the ground.
“We have the same game plan as we had last week - slow the run game down,” Harris said. “Similar things alignment-wise, but a totally different scheme than we saw last week with the Wing-T and misdirection. They’re (Sheridan) more of a downhill, direct snap letting their guys run with it.
“We like our matchup because we think our defensive box play is really solid. It’ll be another tough night where we’ll have to get down and dirty in the trenches with them and slow their run game down. You’re not going to stop it, like we didn’t stop Lake Hamilton, but we were fortunate enough we were able to slow it down enough and held them about 140 yards below their weekly average.”
That Benton box play is led by senior linebacker Jaden Woolbright, who leads the Panthers with 80 tackles and leads the county with 25 tackles for loss, including 16 tackles, five for loss last week, and senior lineman Brett Barbaree, who leads the county with 10 sacks, adding 50 tackles and 17 for loss. But, the Benton defensive duo aren’t the only Panthers making noise up front.
“Both of those two guys have been kind of leading the way stat line-wise,” Harris said, “but two guys that get overlooked a lot on the D-Line is Justin Walker, a nose guard, and Caleb Coffman, our strong side end. Those two guys are anchoring a lot of gaps, slowing things down and making some big play for us, too. They’ve done a tremendous job all year on that D-Line of making some plays.”
Senior Trae Maxwell, a lineman last year moved to linebacker this year, will see time at both positions tonight just like last week against the Wolves.
“Last week you saw Trae Maxwell play some defensive end from the linebacker position,” Harris said. “He’s had some experience playing D-End before, so that worked out real well putting another big-bodied kid on the ball opposite of Barbarbee. This week, you’ll probably see some of the same things. Trae will probably play some D-End and linebacker just to give them different looks. We like our chances this week against that run game.”
Benton will be going against a much-improved Sheridan squad. Winning a total of three games the previous three seasons, the Yellowjackets, picked seventh in the West by Hooten’s Arkansas Football, are 5-4 overall, 3-4 in conference, and clinched a spot in the playoffs for the first time since 2015 with a shot at the No. 4 seed.
“One thing is they’re playing a lot of seniors this year,” Harris said of the Yellowjackets. “In the past they’ve played a lot of young guys and a lot of those guys are seniors right now who have played a lot of minutes for two years. They’re a veteran team on both sides of the ball. That makes a huge difference. They do a good job offensively of moving the football and defensively they’re a little more aggressive, more sound than what they probably were last year. They do a better job of what they’ve done in the past. They tackle well. Just a more solid team than what they were last year.”
The Benton offense has been rolling as well as junior quarterback Garrett Brown had his most efficient game of the season against the Wolves last week, completing 18 of 24 for 261 yards and two TDs, with the offensive line not allowing a sack.
After rushing for just 4 yards in the first half last week, senior running back D’Anthony Harper finished with 75 yards and a TD, while senior receiver Gavin Wells had a season-high 10 catches for 131 yards and a TD, while also throwing a 55-yard TD to senior Jaden Nash. Senior Peyton Hudgins also caught his first TD pass of the season on a 52-yard bomb from Brown.
Benton will also be celebrating its seniors on senior night.
“They’ve done a ton for us this year,” Harris said. “We have 25 seniors and we were glad to get things turned around. A lot of people were doubting us early this year when we were 0-3. We went through some adversity with injuries and different things happened to us.
“These guys have pulled it together and really battled and played hard for us. They’ve done the things you ask of them as a football coach. They’ve done a good job of continuing to grow as players and leading our team. Real proud of them and we want to finish out the regular season with a big win on senior night.”
The Panthers will be without two seniors, offensive lineman Austin Jones and cornerback Austin Drewry, and junior cornerback Trevor Standridge, due to injury, but they will have another week to heal up with a first-round bye next week.
“We’ll be home until we lose or until we move on to War Memorial,” Harris said of home field throughout the playoffs. “It’ll be nice not to have to get on the yellow dog and have to go somewhere.”
The Benton Football Network will provide live radio on 106.7 FM The Ride, and live video streaming on YouTube at the Benton Football Network. Kickoff is 7 p.m.