LITTLE ROCK — For the third year in a row, the Salt Bowl, the annual Saline County showdown between the Bryant Hornets and the Benton Panthers at War Memorial Stadium, drew a crowd of over 30,000 fans. Saturday’s attendance was listed as 32,128, the second largest crowd at a Salt Bowl, topped only by the 34,000-plus in 2015, which is the most highly attended high school game in state history.
And, man, did those 32,000 fans get their money’s worth.
For the second year in a row, the game came down to the last stages. But, while the 2016 game was a defensive slog that ended 10-7 after the Panthers came 11 yards short of winning after a trick play ended with a game-saving rundown and tackle by cornerback Collin Welch as time ran out.
This year, however, it was a different kind of slugfest. The two teams combined for 91 points and nearly 1,000 yards of offense as the Hornets prevailed 49-42 to retain the Salt Bowl Trophy. It wound up being the most points scored between the two teams in the 45-year history of the rivalry.
“It was a complete game for our offense,” asserted Hornets head coach Buck James. “I can’t say anything bad about our team. We’ve just got to play better defensively and we’ve got to be tougher, tougher on the edges and up the middle. I feel good about where we’re at offensively. Defensively, I know we’ll get it fixed. We’ll continue to get better.”
The two teams touted strong offensive line play coming in and that was evident throughout. Bryant’s Preston Kyzer, Joseph Wyllia, Zak Kemp, Blaise Smith, Clay McElyea and Logan Burton opened avenues for running back LaTavion Scott to rush for 124 yards and a touchdown on 26 tries. He also caught seven passes for 77 yards and a score. “Wildcat” quarterback Cameron Vail scored three times and junior signal-caller Ren Hefley went 15 of 21 in the air for 288 yards and two TDs.
On the other side, Benton’s linemen James Durling, Beau Belcher, Josh George, Jackson Shelton, Jared Hastings and Jensen White produced the holes for running back Zak Wallace to dash for 177 yards and five touchdowns. Quarterback Colin Morrow was 17 of 26 through the air for 215 yards with Wallace making a team-high five snags for another 69 yards.
“I said all week, they’ve got a big offensive line and big running back and we had to keep them hemmed down on first and second down to make them try and throw the football,” James mentioned, referring to any number of the scads of interviews he endured in advance of the game. “We weren’t able to do that. My hat’s off to them. Their offensive line played very well. The quarterback ran the ball well and the tailback ran the ball well.”
Of his own offense, the coach said, “We made it look easy at times. We threw the ball well. Ren did a heck of a job of staying in the pocket and taking a shot where he didn’t do that last time. We caught the ball down the field and LaTavion did a great job running and the offensive line did a great job run blocking.”
Though Bryant never trailed, Benton wouldn’t go away. The Panthers overcame a 21-7 first-quarter deficit, tied the game at 21 then 28 then 35.
It turned on a series of events in the fourth quarter. With 10:26 left in the game, the Hornets snapped the last deadlock with a drive capped off by Hefley’s swing pass to Scott, who took advantage of downfield blocking to take it to the house covering 30 yards.
Defensive end Johnny Wallace foiled a first-down play on Benton’s subsequent possession, dropping Zak Wallace for a loss. Morrow followed with a 5-yard keeper but, on a third-and-6 at the Panthers 39, Morrow’s pass fell incomplete, resulting in the Panthers’ first and only punt of the game.
A strong return of the punt by Brandon Murray appeared to have the Hornets in good field position at the Benton 46 but an illegal block pushed them back. The penalty was a spot foul and the mark off left the Hornets 82 yards away from a two-score lead.
They got a big chunk when Hefley found Ja’Kaylon Pittman deep down the middle. After making the catch, Pittman was caught inside the Benton 30 and fumbled. Benton scrambled to get to it only to have Bryant’s Randy Thomas jump on it.
“Ja’kalon Pittman, several times, made great blocks,” James noted. “Then he made a tremendous catch. Probably the play of the game is when Randy Thomas recovered the fumble at the end of that big catch.”
That set up Vail’s 6-yard keeper out of the Wildcat with defensive players Bryce Thomas, Jakob Neel and Austin Bailey in the game to add to the blocking.
For the first time since the end of the first quarter, the Hornets had a two-score lead with just 5:36 left to play.
But Benton answered with a 69-yard march in 10 plays. Morrow was 5 of 5 in the air on the drive. The Panthers tried a trick play – a lateral to Peyton Pallette who passed downfield — that Bryant foiled. But a 15-yard pass from Morrow to Clayton Maertens converted a third down and, from the 3, Wallace scored his fifth touchdown. Breck Rambo’s extra point had the Panthers back within a touchdown with 3:00 on the clock.
An onside kick failed for the Panthers when they were cited for an illegal block to get Curtis out of the way just before he was going to field the squibber. The Hornets took over on the Benton 39 and it appeared they were in a position to run out the clock.
But, on a second-down play, Scott and Hefley missed connections on a handoff. Scott got on the ball but the play lost 8 yards, which proved too much to get back. So with 1:24 left, Vail came on to punt. He got the kick away under some pressure. The kick reached the end zone for a touchback and Benton had to go from its own 20 with 1:17 left and no timeouts.
It was a valiant effort by the Panthers as they pushed out to the 32 before a fourth-down pass was broken up by Antonio Rice to dash the Panthers’ lingering hope.
“We’ve got to be better on defense, especially on the edge,” James related. “But they even ran right up the middle where our strength was. You’ve got to give them credit. It’s a big rivalry game and the game means something to both teams and everybody’s going to play better than they normally might expect to.”
The Hornets’ early lead was a result of their first three possessions going for points. The opening drive went 70 yards in eight plays that included a 42-yard pass from Hefley to Matthew Sandidge.
Bryant got the first break when, on Benton’s first possession, Morrow swung a pass to the outside to Wallace. The throw wound up being a lateral and when Wallace couldn’t handle it cleanly, Allen Coleman pounced on the loose ball at the 19. Hefley would get the final 6 yards for the touchdown. Martin Ramirez who converted all seven PATs, made it 14-0.
Benton had to convert a third-down play and a fourth-down snap to keep the drive going. On the fourth down at the Bryant 20, Morrow passed incomplete but a pass interference penalty gave the Panthers new life. Beau Brewer, out of Benton’s jumbo Wildcat formation, scored from the 5.
Set up by a 16-yard third-down conversion on a pass from Hefley to Curtis, the Hornets came right back, cashing in from the 2 on a run by Scott.
The defense had their moments in the game. Benton’s corresponding possession reached the Bryant 2 where the Hornets came up with a goal line stand. In turn, however, they were unable to root it out and, on a third-and-10, Vail stepped back for a quick-kick.
The exchange gave the Panthers great field positon and they took advantage. Wallace scored from 17 yards out with 5:31 left in the half.
The Hornets appeared to have an answering march going but, on a fourth-and-1 at the Panthers 10, they rushed out to try to run a play quickly. Hefley got the first down but the gain was negated by a penalty, technically listed as delay of game, for snapping the ball before the officials were ready.
On a fourth-and-6 play, Hefley couldn’t find an open receiver and Benton took over on downs, feeling some momentum building.
Wallace turned a swing pass into a 47-yard gain and, after a 14-yard completion from Morrow to Maertens, Wallace scored from 20 yards out to tie the game 21-21.
With just :31 left in the half, it looked like the game would go to the locker deadlocked. But when Murray returned the kickoff to the Benton 45, it opened up an additional opportunity.
The Hornets moved the sticks with a swing pass to Scott for 11 yards. After a timeout with :15 showing, somehow the Panthers lost track of Curtis, despite his being 6-3 and 225 pounds. He made a great catch of Hefley’s pass and sailed into the end zone for a touchdown with :09 left.
“We think we can score from anywhere,” Coach James asserted. “Murray made the big return but we always feel like, anytime we get on the other side of the 50, we’ve got a chance to score. That’s how we try to coach our offense, that’s what we tell our kids we’re going to be able to do, and that’s what we want to be able to do. It was great throw and a better catch by Curtis.”
But any momentum that they may have gained swung the other way when, on the first play from scrimmage in the second half, Wallace broke a 55-yard touchdown run and, with the extra point, the Panthers were even again, this time at 28.
Benton had a chance to drive to the lead when Cameron Ross intercepted Hefley with 10:46 left.
The Hornets’ defense stepped up, keeping Benton from picking up a first down. The Panthers reached the Bryant 36 on three consecutive totes by Wallace. On fourth down, they tried to cross the Hornets up with a fake to Wallace and a handoff to Kyvin Carroll, but linebacker Jake Wright got into the backfield for a 4-yard loss.
That led to a tie-breaking touchdown on a 1-yard plunge by Vail out of the jumbo set.
Trailing 35-28, Benton overcame an illegal block along the way on a 13-play drive. Morrow was 4 for 4 on the drive and added a key 28-yard gallop. Once they got to the Bryant 1, however, the Hornets made a bid for another goal-line stand. It came down to a fourth-and-goal from the 2. On the last play of the third quarter, Wallace scored and it was 35-35 going into the final stanza.
The Hornets will be back in action on Friday when they travel to Fayetteville to take on the defending Class 7A State champion. Benton will be after its first win on Friday at Little Rock Parkview.