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BENTON — For the first time all season — here in week 10 — the Bryant Hornets freshman team had to play in the fourth quarter.
And play well.
Their undefeated season was on the line.
The Benton Panthers freshmen had pulled within 15-12 early in the fourth quarter, scoring at the end of a 15-play, 60-yard drive that took nearly six minutes off the clock. But the Hornets appeared to be on their way to an answering touchdown when the Panthers forced a fumble that Trevor Standridge recovered 55 yards away from a go-ahead touchdown.
After just coming off the field at the end of Benton’s long march, the Hornets’ defense returned and came through. Most particularly, linebacker Hart Penfield, who, on a second-down play, chased down Benton quarterback Garrett Brown for a 13-yard sack.
The Panthers could not recover and Hayden Purdy was brought on for a punt.
After watching Benton’s offensive line take over the game for a while, the Bryant offensive line took their turn. In three running plays, the Hornets drove for a touchdown to cushion the tenuous advantage. Xavier Foote started the drive with a 5-yard gain on his first carry of the game, then after quarterback Austin Ledbetter dashed for 24 yards, Foote wove his way through the Benton defense on a 40-yard TD take.
On a short kickoff, the Hornets got the ball back with 4:01 left to play and drove for a clinching score, with Foote covering the final 26 yards. To set up the touchdown, Ledbetter kept on a fourth-and-7 and picked up just enough for a first down.
The Hornets finished like the champions they are, earning an outright Central Arkansas Junior High Conference title, with a 27-12 victory over their arch-rivals, finishing with a 10-0 record.
“We made a few more plays that they didn’t,” noted Hornets head coach Kenny Horn, who has led Bryant freshman teams to 27 wins in a row and a 38-2 record over the last four seasons. “We won and that’s good.
“When we got the ball back in the fourth quarter, I told them, ‘Hey, this is crunch time. We’ve got to execute. We’ve got to get first downs and we’ve got to score a touchdown.’ And we did to go up 21-12,” he related. “On the kick, we weren’t playing for that but it worked out for us. We did what we needed to do there to finish it out.
“It wasn’t easy,” the coach acknowledged. “They had a good game plan. They wanted to keep the ball from us and slow us down.”
Muscling up in their ground game, the Panthers used a physical offensive line and power back Kyree Watkins to limit Bryant’s possessions.
Though Benton had 46 offensive snaps to Bryant’s 33, the Hornets limited the Panthers to 152 yards of total offense.
“We talked about it before hand,” Horn acknowledged. “We felt like if Benton came out, loaded up and ran at us, we were going to have a hard time stopping them. And that’s what they did.
“We’re not very big up front,” he noted. “And they’re extremely big up front. We hoped to bend a little bit, hopefully not break and make a few plays here and there. And that’s what we did.
“If we’re not on our pace then we’re not very effective offensively,” the coach mentioned. “We’d drop the football or we’d have a stupid penalty and it slowed us down.
“Now, once we’re on pace and we’re going then it’s an avalanche. It’s going to be hard to stop us.”
The Hornets showed that on their first offensive series, which came after Benton opened the game with a march from their own 42 to the Bryant 20. A pair of penalties pushed the Panthers back. Consecutive passes by Brown fell incomplete then a fourth-down screen pass was destroyed by the Hornets for a loss.
Taking over on the 27, Bryant unleashed the avalanche, scoring in three plays. Ledbetter hit River Gregory for 19 yards, Hayden Schrader for 16 then found Myles Aldridge behind the secondary for a 38-yard touchdown.
The extra point was undermined by a low snap but Penfield, the holder, scooped up the ball, rolled out and threw to Gregory who stepped into the end zone for a two-point conversion.
Despite a 40-yard kickoff return by Benton’s Michael Jefferson, the Panthers were unable to pick up a first down as Jimyle Harris, LaQuav Brumfield and Noah Davis made consecutive stops.
The Hornets’ second possession started at their own 3 after a strong punt by Brown. Ledbetter fired to Gregory for 24 yards then back-to-back penalties against Benton pushed the ball out to the 37.
The Panthers, however, stepped it up on defense and forced the Hornets to punt it back on the first play of the second quarter.
Taking over at their own 28, the Panthers struggled on the first two snaps but, on third down, wide receiver Aiden Birdsong got open deep for a 39-yard pass. A play later, a personal foul penalty against the Hornets had the Panthers at the 13. Watkins bulled to the 1 and, after Standridge was denied, Watkins powered into the end one from the 2 to make it 8-6.
A try for two failed.
The Hornet offense was further knocked off pace with a holding penalty to start the ensuing possession then a tipped pass was intercepted by Tristan Hawkins. It was just the second interception of the season for Ledbetter.
Moments later, Brown’s second interception of the season was pulled in off by Penfield off a deflection.
Another holding penalty undermined Bryant’s final possession of the half. Ledbetter punted the Panthers back to the 2 and the game went to halftime with Bryant up by 2 points.
The Hornets got the ball to start the third quarter, however, and promptly extended the advantage with a 60-play drive in eight plays. Ledbetter’s 20-yard completion to Austin Schroeder provided the initial impetus. Still, the Hornets faced a fourth-and-4 once they got to the Benton 29. On his first run of the night, Ledbetter, who came in leading the team in rushing, converted with a 15-yard burst. He followed with a 12-yard run and, after a procedure penalty, Ledbetter found Gregory for the 10-yard touchdown.
Brock Funk kicked the extra point to make it 15-6.
That’s when Benton began its long drive. The Panthers overcame a holding penalty that negated a 25-yard pass from Brown to Watkins. The Hornets helped with a pass interference penalty on the next throw.
The Panthers marched to the Bryant 36 where, Standridge, running at quarterback, converted a fourth-and-1 with a 3-yard gain.
Moments later, it appeared the Panthers had scored when Brown found Watkins for a 33-yard completion but a holding penalty negated the play. Brown scrambled for 12 yards but then a fourth-down pass fell incomplete. But, instead of the Hornets taking over on downs, a roughing the passer penalty kept the drive alive.
On a third-and-7 at the 16, Brown tossed to Standridge for 15 yards to set up a 1-yard plunge by Watkins. An extra-point attempt missed and it was 15-12.
The Hornets started the responding drive with a 12-yard pass from Ledbetter to Gregory then a 14-yard quarterback keeper before the fumble that put the lead in momentary jeopardy.