On the final day of August, the Greenwood Bulldogs started their 2018 season with an unimpressive 31-16 road loss at Fort Smith Northside. But that game was eons ago it seems.
Starting with week two at Fort Smith Southside, a 52-27 blowout win, the ‘Dogs won 12 consecutive games to finish 12-1 overall and successfully defended the 6A state championship they earned in 2017.
The final proof of their continued supremacy over the state’s Class 6A division came this past Saturday on a sun-drenched, windy afternoon at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium. Greenwood’s final victims were the Benton Panthers, a fellow member of the 6A West conference.
The Bulldogs clobbered the Panthers, 62-33, on October 19th at Smith-Robinson Stadium, but most observers expected the rematch to be somewhat different. The logic goes that it’s always harder to beat the same team a second time in the same season. That didn’t turn out to be the case.
Six weeks ago the Panthers were dealing with injuries to their starting quarterback and star running back, though they made a game of it for a half. But both players were back and healthy for the state title game, so the contest should have been more competitive, but it wasn’t.
Other than their opening scoring drives of both halves, the Panthers were stifled offensively by Greenwood’s dominating defense, while the Benton defense once again struggled with the Bulldogs’ multi-faceted attack led by senior quarterback Peyton Holt, later named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
Before the contest, broadcast statewide on the Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN), GHS Head Coach Rick Jones offered the following comments regarding his team’s return to War Memorial, something they have done 13 times overall since 1996 and 11 times in 15 years since his arrival as head coach in 2004. Saturday’s win was the eighth state championship for Jones and the ninth in school history.
Asked about considering the state championship and Little Rock as Greenwood’s “home-away-from-home”, the coach said, “We would like to consider it that, but it’s hard to get here.
“It’s a great honor to be here. It’s a special thing that we don’t take for granted at all. We’re very happy to be here. [Our players are] not satisfied. We’re hungry and we’re ready to go today.”
Jones also talked about his program’s long run of top-notch quarterbacks, including this year’s model, Peyton Holt. “We’ve been crazy lucky. I think we’ve had six Division I quarterbacks at Greenwood. We’ve been very fortunate.”
The QBs Jones referred to include Daniel Stegall, Stephen Hogan, Jabe Burgess, Tyler Wilson, Luke Hales, and Connor Noland. Hales is currently playing for the University of Central Arkansas, while Noland is expected to compete for the starting job at the University of Arkansas next season.
As for the previous meeting between the two teams, Jones tried to play down the lopsided margin of Greenwood’s victory. “We scored some points late, but it was a battle,” he said. “[Benton] scored more points on us than any team we’ve played all year long.”
But the coach also hyped the play of his team’s defense late in the season. “Our defense has played lights out the last four weeks,” he said. “They’ve only given up three points [to Sylvan Hills].”
Greenwood defeated Sylvan Hills in the state semi-finals, 31-10. The Bears’ lone touchdown came on an interception return by their defense. Greenwood had previously shutout Lake Hamilton (40-0) in the regular season finale, and Searcy (35-0) in the playoffs.
Jones also anticipated a good crowd at Saturday’s title match in which his Bulldogs were designated at the home team. “It’s going to be a good crowd,” he said. “Our people love football.”
Officially, the attendance for the game was 11,201, with both teams well-represented, despite the proximity of Benton to Little Rock (25 miles). GHS fans had much further to drive, about 150 miles.
The wind was a factor throughout the game, so winning the opening coin toss was potentially huge for the Bulldogs. “The toss on a windy day is big,” said Jones, harkening back to his many years of experience as a coach in Oklahoma. But winning the toss didn’t help Greenwood early.
“It gave us the first possession of the third quarter and the wind early, but we didn’t stop [Benton],” said Jones after the contest. Indeed, the Panthers drove 80 yards in nine plays to score on their opening possession of the first quarter.
Most of those plays were on the ground, with a key pass mixed in, along with some help from a couple of big penalties on the Bulldogs. The touchdown came on a 24-yard gallop by senior running back Zac Wallace (5-11, 203). The extra point made it 7-0 early (8:08).
But that would be all the scoring by the Panthers in the first half as the GHS defense adjusted quickly. The Greenwood offense stumbled a little to start the game, settling for a field goal on its first possession, but quickly found its footing and led 24-7 at the half.
The field goal came on the 18th play of a drive that started at the Bulldogs’ 7-yard-line after a mishandled kickoff return. Using short passes, Holt marched his teammates across midfield and into Benton territory, overcoming penalties and five plays for lost yardage along the way.
The key play came on a third-and-23 situation at the Greenwood 34. The right-handed Holt rolled to his left and fired an off-balance wobbly pass downfield to junior receiver Lazaro Angel. The ball appeared to be slightly underthrown, which turned out to be good for Greenwood, as Angel made the adjustment and the catch for a huge first down.
But when the Benton defense later proved up to the task, the Bulldogs settled for a long field goal try with the wind at their backs. Reliable senior Grant Ennis, the state’s all-time career scoring leader as a kicker, booted the 45-yard kick straight and true far beyond the uprights, cutting the Benton lead to 7-3 (2:12).
It was then all Greenwood for the remainder of the first half as the Bulldogs scored three second quarter touchdowns, putting the Panthers under the gun and reminding them of their earlier defeat at the hands of the defending state champions.
With the GHS defense adjusting and throttling Benton’s offense, Peyton Holt & Company wasted little time in putting their stamp on the game. Greenwood scored on three consecutive possessions following two punts and a failed fourth down play by Benton.
The first scoring drive covered 72 yards and required just three plays as the contest transitioned into the second quarter. Facing third-and-nine from his own 29, Holt found receiver Aaron Ohl wide open behind the defense over the middle near midfield.
The senior two-way player made the catch and managed to stay ahead of the defensive pursuit all the way to the end zone. It was the first of several big plays for Ohl, who also starts in the defensive backfield. The PAT was good by Ennis (11:06).
With the Bulldogs’ leading 10-7, another Benton punt gave Greenwood the ball at the ‘Dogs’ 8-yard-line. But poor field position didn’t slow down the offense, now firing on all cylinders.
Senior receiver Luke Leonard took a handoff and ran to the 15, followed by running back Hunter Wilkinson, who reached the 23. Holt then connected with Leonard for another first down at the 35.
Two snaps later Holt ran for 23 yards to the Benton 41. After a holding penalty, Holt passed to Ohl for eight yards to the 50, then scrambled to the Panthers’ 44.
The ‘Dogs then ran a rare trick play, a double-reverse pass, with Holt eventually catching the pass from sophomore L.D. Richmond and reaching the 18-yard-line.
Holt then passed to Treyton Dawson at the nine, before running a QB keeper, weaving his way through the defense for the touchdown. Ennis added the extra point (6:12).
But Greenwood wasn’t quite finished, and with seemingly nothing to lose, the Panthers gambled and went for it on fourth-and-eight from the GHS 43, but a pass attempt fell incomplete.
From there the Bulldogs’ offense made it look easy, scoring in just five plays and 31 seconds. A pass interference penalty on Benton moved the ball to the Panthers’ 42 before Holt hit Ohl with a sideline toss at the 36.
But on the next snap, Lazaro Angel made perhaps the play-of-the-game with a great one-handed catch and run to the Benton 5-yard-line. Holt scored on the next play on a run around right end. The extra point was good for a 24-7 GHS lead with 4:12 remaining in the first half.
The Bulldogs had a chance to score again before heading to the dressing room, but Benton picked off a pass in the end zone inside the final minute of play. It was only Holt’s second intercepted pass all season. The half ended with Greenwood recovering a fumble after a pass and a rather comical series of laterals by the Panthers.
Greenwood started the second half with great field position after a short Benton kick against the wind. But despite beginning at their own 44, the ‘Dogs punted for the first time in the game, giving Benton the football at its own 29-yard-line.
Fives plays later the Panthers were in the end zone for the second and last time in the game. Wallace ran twice for nice yardage to the GHS 30, but it was D’Anthony Harper who bulled his way for 13 and 14 yards, respectively, to the 3-yard-line before scoring on the next play. The kick made it 24-14 (10:11) and the 1000s of Benton fans in attendance finally had something else to cheer about.
But the euphoria didn’t last long, as the Bulldogs responded with a trio of touchdowns, taking advantage of two Benton turnovers, increasing Greenwood’s lead to the final margin of 45-14.
The first second-half score for the ‘Dogs came at the end of a 12-play drive that started from the GHS 35 after the Benton kickoff against the wind sailed out-of-bounds.
To open the possession, Holt (8) and Leonard (12) combined for a pair of runs covering 20 yards to the Panthers’ 43. Three plays later, facing third-and-12, Holt passed to Treyton Dawson for 14 yards to the 33, moving the sticks for a first down.
Leonard ran to the 20 with the next snap and Holt ran a quarterback draw to the 14, then gave to Wilkinson to the 12. Holt then kept the ball again to the nine for a first down.
Three plays later, Holt connected with Dawson again near the goal line before the sophomore receiver carried in for the touchdown. Ennis made the score 31-14 (6:29).
Less than a minute later the Greenwood defense came up with the first of two second-half interceptions. Senior defensive back Dawson James grabbed an overthrown ball and returned it a short distance to the Benton 17, and the Bulldogs quickly made Benton pay for the mistake.
A shovel pass to Leonard netted seven yards to the 10, and a short gain by Wilkinson reached the seven for a first down. Holt then scored around right end on the next snap and Ennis added the extra point (5:15) for a 38-14 Greenwood lead.
Four plays into Benton’s next possession, Aaron Ohl added to his already stellar game with a pick and short return to the Panthers’ 34. But this time the turnover did not result in a Greenwood score as ‘Dogs’ junior Jackson Stewart punted the ball beautifully out-of-bounds at the Benton 4-yard-line.
As the game moved into the fourth quarter, Benton was desperate to make the score respectable, but failed on a fourth-and-four situation when Greenwood senior defensive end Morgan Hanna blew up the play by sacking the quarterback at the Benton 30.
Wilkinson ran to the 26 and Holt threw to Angel at the 22 before keeping the ball on the next snap for a short gain to the 18. A quick sideline pass to Angel then reached the 13, and Wilkinson ran again to the 11-yard-line.
Afterward, senior running back Marc Jones got his first touch with a nice run of eight yards to the three. Three snaps later, after a Greenwood penalty, Holt kept the ball and ran for the six-yard score. The kick by Ennis was true and the Bulldogs led 45-14 (7:06).
Two of the remaining plays of note included a fumble recovery by Greenwood junior Garrett Newman and a brief appearance by senior quarterback Timothy Earnhart to take a knee as time was running out.
By the time the final buzzer sounded the celebration was already underway for Greenwood’s second consecutive state title and their ninth overall in school history. Way to go, Bulldogs!