As expected, the top-ranked Greenwood Bulldogs easily defeated the West Memphis Blue Devils Friday night, 55-7, to advance to the second round of the 6A state football playoffs. In his first season at the helm, Chris Young and his staff have led the ‘Dogs to a perfect 11-0 record, needing three more wins to claim the school’s 10th state title since the 2000 season under Ronnie Peacock (1994-2000). The last eight titles came under Rick Jones (2004-19), who resigned last February.
In other playoff action, the 6A West acquitted itself very well, despite giving up a forfeit due to the coronavirus. Besides Greenwood, other league members who won and advanced included two-seed Lake Hamilton, fourth-seed Little Rock Parkview, five-seed Mountain Home, and seven-seed Van Buren. Siloam Springs, the six-seed, and Russellville, the eighth seed, both lost their games, while Benton, seeded third, had to forfeit its game to Marion due to Covid-19 concerns.
The loss of the Panthers from the playoff picture is huge, because Benton has been one of the best teams in Class 6A all season, despite a 6-4 regular season record. Two of those losses coming in non-conference play against 7A schools. They also lost to the top two teams in Class 6A, Greenwood and Lake Hamilton.
A spokeswoman for the Benton School District reported that at least one player has tested positive for Covid-19, and 33 players were in quarantine, including the entire offensive line, making it impossible for the Panthers to continue their season. Yet, despite the forfeit, the 6A West still went 5-3 in head-to-head competition against the 6A East. Only Marion, El Dorado, and top-seed Sylvan Hills advanced to the second round from the east.
Due to the unusual circumstances resulting from the pandemic, all 16 Class 6A teams were allowed to participate in the first round of the playoffs, though a few teams in other classifications opted out while others forfeited due to Covid-19. The West Memphis Blue Devils (2-8) faced a nearly 300-mile road trip as severe underdogs, facing the unbeaten Bulldogs, and could have easily chosen not to play the game. But to their credit, they made the trip.
Before Friday’s game, Coach Young talked about the prospects of playing at home and the challenge of facing the Blue Devils. “It’s such an advantage when we get to play at home, with our crowd and our students to help us. We’re excited about the possibility of getting three [playoff] games at home. If we take care of [business] this week, we get another week, and that’s what we are stressing [to our players]. I can promise you [West Memphis] won’t be scared. They have some great athletes over there and they are excited to be playing, just like we are.”
The coach also addressed the health of his team, a constant concern throughout the season. The Bulldogs suffered a handful of season-ending injuries early, plus the usual nagging variety throughout the season, including to defensive standout Jordan Hanna, who missed last week’s game at Lake Hamilton and would play limited minutes against West Memphis.
“We’re getting back to full strength,” said Young optimistically. “Everybody is banged up this time of year,” referring to the normal rigors of a 10-game regular season schedule. “We’re just going to figure out who is ready to go and put them in the game and play the best we can.”
Pegged as 35-point favorites by Hooten’s Arkansas Football, the Bulldogs got off to a sluggish start offensively, scoring just once in the opening quarter, giving temporary hope to the visiting Blue Devils, who scored on the first play of the second quarter and tied the score with the extra point. But that was it for the West Memphis offense as the home defense turned up the heat for the final three quarters, including a pair of pick-six pass interceptions.
Playing conditions were ideal at Smith-Robinson Stadium on the second Friday in November as senior Luis Morales teed up the ball to start the game. His kick sailed into the end zone, forcing West Memphis to start at their own 20. Four plays later, having failed to pick up a first down, the Blue Devils punted. The short kick went out-of-bounds at the visitors’ 47-yard-line.
Despite a couple of annoying procedure penalties, the Bulldogs needed just five plays to score the game’s first touchdown. Quarterback L.D. Richmond, who started the game six-for-six throwing the ball, connected with Caden Brown on a short pitch-pass to the 36, then threw to Peyton Carter at the 25. On the next snap Richmond found Luke Brewer for an 18-yard gain to the 12. Running back Hunter Wilkinson then ran twice, the second time for the 5-yard touchdown. The kick by Morales was good for a 7-0 GHS lead (9:22).
The Blue Devils advanced into GHS territory on their second possession, but failed on a fourth-down play at the home 25, giving up the football. But the Bulldogs returned the favor moments later, fumbling at the West Memphis 47. Most of the remainder of the first period was a stalemate until the visitors started a 51-yard drive that would end with a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter. It took the Blue Devils three plays to score from the GHS 3-yard-line.
With the game knotted at 7-all, the Bulldogs then took over offensively, scoring 27 unanswered points before halftime, then adding three additional touchdowns in the second half, invoking the Arkansas Athletic Association’s 35-point sportsmanship (mercy) rule. Two of those seven touchdowns came courtesy of the GHS defense.
The scoring fest began on Greenwood’s first possession of the second quarter, set up by Jayden Jasna’s 19-yard kick return to the 43-yard-line. The biggest play of the series was a 12-yard QB scramble by Richmond to the West Memphis 34. Hunter Wilkinson and the offensive line then did the rest on five successive carries, the final one for eight yards and the touchdown. But the Morales extra-point attempt sailed wide, leaving the score at 13-7 (9:43).
After another West Memphis three-and-out, the ‘Dogs took possession of the ball at the visitors’ 46. On first down, Wilkinson got nine yards to the 37, setting up Richmond’s scoring strike to Luke Brewer. The junior receiver caught the ball over the middle near the 20-yard-line and outran the pursuit to the end zone. Morales added the PAT (7:41).
Leading 20-7, the GHS defense came up big with a turnover and touchdown just over two minutes later. The pick-six was made by defensive back Colin Daggett at the Blue Devils’ 26-yard-line. The extra point was good, making the score 27-7 with 5:31 left in the opening half. But the ‘Dogs weren’t done yet.
After another short series and punt by the West Memphis offense, the Bulldogs moved closer to imposing the mercy rule with their fifth touchdown of the half. Taking over at the visitors’ 48-yard-line, the GHS offense needed 11 plays to score, overcoming a holding penalty in the process. Richmond completed three of his four pass attempts, including a 12-yard toss to Cameron Carter, while Wilkinson carried six times on the drive for 28 yards, including the two-yard TD plunge. With 1:38 remaining, the kick by Morales was true and the teams headed to their respective locker rooms with the Bulldogs comfortably ahead, 34-7.
The ‘Dogs received the opening kick of the third quarter, and quickly moved to invoke the mercy rule, scoring on the fifth snap of the series. Jayden Jasna’s kick return put the ball at the GHS 42. Two plays later Richmond tossed the ball to Caden Brown for nine yards to the West Memphis 49. Wilkinson then got five yards to the 44 before Peyton Carter’s pass reception at the 30. Richmond then had plenty of time to move around in the backfield before finding Brown behind the defense in the end zone for the touchdown (10:34). The extra point was good, making the score 42-7, imposing the mercy rule.
But the Bulldogs had two more scores in them, one on offense and one on defense, as more and more starters left the game over the final 20 minutes. The next touchdown was set up by a diving interception made by Jayden Jasna in the defensive backfield at the West Memphis 45-yard-line. Six plays later the GHS offense scored its final touchdown.
With senior starter L.D. Richmond on the sideline, #2 quarterback Hunter Houston, a sophomore, took the reigns and led his teammates on a 55-yard scoring drive, completing all three of his pass attempts for 33 yards to receivers Aiden Kennon (2) and Jase Strozier. From the 17, reserve running back Ty Moose then ran twice, including the 11-yard touchdown sprint. The kick by Morales was good, making the score 49-7 (5:29).
The game’s final score came in the first minutes of the fourth quarter, with West Memphis driving across midfield into GHS territory, mostly against the Bulldogs’ reserve defenders. But one of the remaining starters was senior defensive back Tatum Sadler, who rather impolitely stepped in front of a Blue Devils’ receiver and snagged Greenwood’s third interception of the game. And since he had already gone to so much trouble, Sadler followed a bevy of blockers and made a nice course adjustment on his way to a 59-yard return for a touchdown. A meaningless extra point attempt failed, but it made no difference in the 55-7 victory for the Bulldogs. The remaining 11:34 unfolded in quick fashion.
Statistically, the GHS offense rolled up 440 yards, including 206 yards rushing, led by Hunter Wilkinson’s 122 yards and three touchdowns. All three of his scores came in the first half. Quarterback J.D. Richmond was 16-of-18 passing for 186 yards and a pair of touchdowns in just over two quarters of action. The Greenwood defense also was solid, holding the Blue Devils to a paltry 155 yards with two interceptions for touchdowns.
After the game, Coach Young spoke to members of the media, saying, “We didn’t play very well in the first quarter, and we didn’t coach very well. But we came out in the second quarter and played well, and continued to play well in the second half. We could have hung our heads and let it bother us, [but] I was proud of the way we responded. We made some adjustments and got a good win.
“We [also] got a lot of guys in [the game] that haven’t played [much], and I thought they played well,” Young continued. “Hunter Houston came in at quarterback and was efficient leading our offense. Defensively, we were able to get guys in to get some reps and kept [West Memphis] off the [scoreboard]. It was good for [us] in the second half.”
Asked about the next round of the playoffs, the first-year head coach was unsure of the opponent, but expressed confidence that his team would be prepared for either Mountain Home or Pine Bluff. “We’ll wait and see. But whoever it is, we will be ready,” he said.
In fact, the Mountain Home Bombers of the 6A West, under new head coach Steve Ary, traveled to Pine Bluff and defeated the Zebras, 24-20, to win only their sixth post-season game in school history in 24 attempts. Mountain Home, now 6-5, is the #5 seed and lost to Greenwood earlier this season, 40-7. The Bulldogs should once again be heavily favored.