Late score propels Greenwood to win over Benton; sends Bulldogs back to 6A state finals on Saturday

Late score propels Greenwood to win over Benton; sends Bulldogs back to 6A state finals on Saturday

Greenwood 31, Benton 24

For the third consecutive season Head Coach Chris Young and his Bulldogs (10-2) are headed back to the Class 6A state championship game next Saturday at Little Rock’s Memorial Stadium. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. against the Bruins (11-1) of Little Rock’s Pulaski Academy. Greenwood hosted Benton this past Friday night at Smith-Robinson Stadium, defeating the Panthers with a late touchdown, 31-24. The Bruins played at War Memorial on Friday, the home field of Little Rock Catholic, topping the previously unbeaten Rockets, 54-42.

Greenwood and Pulaski Academy (PA) both represent the 6A West conference, finishing first and second respectively in the league standings this season, and few observers are surprised the two teams reached the finals. Both schools have dominated their designated classifications over the past decade and both have won 10 state titles. PA was promoted to Class 6A this season to restore competitive balance in both the 5A and 6A ranks, and the strategy seems to have worked. While both teams have reached the finals, only one will walk away with the championship. Little Rock Parkview and Shiloh Christian are playing for the 5A title next weekend as well. Bryant and Bentonville will play for the 7A crown.

Earlier this season Greenwood hosted Pulaski Academy and won the game, 33-23, the Bruins’ only loss. The Bulldogs’ two losses came in the first and last games of the regular season. They fell to Stillwater, OK, in the season opener, 41-27, and to Little Rock Christian in the season finale, 49-35. Greenwood is also making its seventh championship game appearance in the last eight years, winning three of their previous six appearances (2017-18, 2020).

Friday’s contest didn’t always feature great play, especially by the Bulldogs, who suffered several first half turnovers and some uncharacteristically erratic play throughout the game. But when it mattered the most the home team rose to the occasion on a nice night for a semi-finals football game with temperatures in the 50s, twenty degrees warmer than a week earlier when Greenwood defeated Russellville in the state quarterfinals.

The Bulldogs received the opening kick with Grant Karnes returning it only to the 17-yard-line, then very quickly the wheels fell off for the Bulldogs. On the game’s first snap, quarterback Hunter Houston’s sideline pass attempt was intercepted by Benton’s Zeke Smith and returned unmolested 15 yards for a Panthers’ defensive touchdown. The extra point made it 7-0 just ten seconds into the game. It was the first of three interceptions in the first half by the visitors.

Perhaps stunned by their early deficit, the Bulldogs faltered in their next possession as well, committing a penalty and giving up a pair of QB sacks before punting the ball away. But the defense did its job, containing Benton star running back Braylen Russell on the first series, forcing a Panthers’ punt out-of-bounds at the GHS 49. Russell (6’2”, 230) had some impressive stats for the game (39/234 yards), but had to earn every yard against a tenacious Greenwood defense that gave up just 17 points in the contest and put up two game-changing goal line stands.

With the help of a pair of Benton penalties, the Bulldogs needed 10 plays to reach the Panthers’ 3-yard-line. But after a failed third down pass, Coach Young sent in kicker Bodey Steinfeldt for a chip shot field goal, making the score 7-3 with 5:25 left in the opening period. But Benton’s next possession proved to be a critical point in the game, easily forgotten because it happened in the first quarter.

Starting from their own 27 after the kickoff, the Panthers pounded the ball on the ground, mostly giving it to Russell, reaching the GHS 38 in four plays, followed by a pass reception that nearly reached the end zone. Thankfully, the receiver was pulled down at the 1-yard-line. But just when everyone thought a Benton touchdown was inevitable, Russell fumbled the football before crossing the goal line and the Bulldogs recovered it in the end zone for a touchback. It appeared that senior safety Storm Scherrey made the recovery.

Reenergized, the Bulldogs then marched 80 yards in eight plays to take their first lead of the contest. Hunter Houston completed three of five pass attempts for 27 yards and scrambled for 18 more. Senior running back Jake Glover ran twice, the first time for seven yards and the second time for 28 yards and the touchdown, finding a hole in the defensive line before cutting back to his left and getting a nice block from receiver Grant Karnes. The kick by Steinfeldt was good, making the score 10-7 in favor of the Bulldogs (2:15).

The next two possessions failed to yield any points with the Panthers punting and Greenwood giving up its second turnover when Hunter Houston’s passed was tipped and picked off deep in Benton territory, squashing a GHS scoring threat. From their own 21 the Panthers then marched 79 yards in 10 plays, all on the ground, to retake the lead. Russell scored from 23 yards out and the PAT put the visitors back on top, 14-10, with 5:53 left in the second quarter.

But that was plenty of time for a flurry of action before halftime, including a Greenwood touchdown and a pair of turnovers, one by each team before retiring to their locker rooms for the intermission. The Bulldogs’ score came on their next possession, starting at their own 31 after the kick return by L.J. Robins. The drive required seven plays, including two designed rushes and a scramble by Hunter Houston, and a fourth down scoring pass to sophomore receiver Isaiah Arrington.

Houston ran a quarterback draw on the first play of the series then scrambled on the second snap, netting good yardage to the 45. Another designed QB run reached the Benton 45, but that’s when the possession stalled at the visitors’ 40-yard-line. Facing fourth down, Houston threw deep to a wide-open Arrington near the 5-yard-line and in for the score (3:33). The extra point was good, and the Bulldogs retook the lead, 17-14, which they held until halftime.

With enough time remaining to mount a threat, the Panthers hoped to ride Braylen Russell to another score before the break, but the GHS defense thought differently. Sophomore defensive end Cash Archer stripped Russell of the football, ripping it out of his arms and returning it a short distance to the Benton 38. Unfortunately, two plays later another tipped pass was picked off by the Panthers at their 8-yard-line.

Benton then drove 91 yards to the GHS 1-yard-line with seven seconds left in the half before a penalty pushed the ball back five yards. Deciding against a field goal try that likely would have tied the score, the Panthers’ final play of the half was a lateral pass that was stuffed by the GHS defense, keeping the score 17-14 at the break.

But the visitors received the ball to start the third quarter and made quick work of it, scoring their third touchdown of the game after 10 plays and 67 yards. Russell ran for 12 and 20 yards on two carries during the possession then later scored from 14 yards out. The extra point put the Panthers ahead for the last time, 21-17 at the 7:34 mark of the period.

The Bulldogs tried to respond, crossing midfield into Benton territory, but a holding call and three straight incomplete passes killed the drive, leading to a Landon Nelms punt that was downed at the Benton 9-yard-line. The GHS defense then continued its fine work by holding Benton in check and forcing a punt after giving up a pair of rushing first downs. The ‘Dogs’ offense took over at their own 39 with 2:11 left in the third quarter.

Houston passed to receiver Noah Chaser on first down to near the 49, then running back Brayedan Davis got the first down at the Benton 49. Isaiah Arrington caught a pass to the 41 then Davis ran again to the 34, moving the sticks. Houston found Grant Karnes for a first down reception at the 24 before running a QB keeper to the 18. Davis then rumbled to the 9-yard-line and Houston kept again to the four on the last play of the quarter.

The GHS senior quarterback kept the ball on the first two snaps of the fourth period, scoring from one yard out. Bodey Steinfeldt added the extra point, making the score 24-21 with 11:33 remaining to play. At the same time, in Little Rock at War Memorial Stadium, the Bruins of Pulaski Academy were maintaining their lead over Little Rock Catholic. On this Thanksgiving weekend, the table was almost set for the 6A state championship game.

But the Panthers weren’t ready to quit just yet, driving 58 yards to the GHS 7-yard-line before defensive back Brady Mackey broke up a third down pass attempt, forcing Benton to settle for a tying field goal with just under 6½ minutes left to play. The 25-yard boot was good, knotting the score at 24-all. But Benton would not make another first down.

The Bulldogs’ offense managed to pick up a first down and burned nearly three minutes off the clock, but faltered near midfield and had to punt, a kick that rolled dead at the visitors’ 6-yard-line, helping to flip the field for Greenwood. The Panthers then went three-and-out, even with Russell in the backfield, and very quickly the ball was back in the hands of Hunter Houston and his teammates. L.J. Robins signaled for the fair catch of the Benton punt at the Panthers’ 45, giving Greenwood excellent field position with 2:35 left to play, and the Bulldogs needed nearly every second of it as they drove for the winning touchdown, sending them back to War Memorial Stadium next Saturday.

Davis ran for five yards on first down, Jake Glover got two more to the 38, and Grant Karnes reached the 36. Facing a critical fourth-and-one situation, both teams called timeouts to slow the game down, understanding the importance of the moment and the next play. But when the action resumed, it was Houston who carried for the necessary yardage, moving the yard markers and keeping the drive alive.

But just as quickly, the possession seemed in peril again after no gain on three consecutive plays, the last two incomplete passes. Facing fourth down and potential overtime, the ‘Dogs went back to the air, this time to Grant Karnes, who made a sensational leaping catch while being well covered at the 3-yard-line, landing hard and needing help to get up. Houston then lost yardage to the five before Greenwood used its final timeout with 14 ticks remaining.

When play resumed, Houston found a wide-open L.J. Robins in the right side of the end zone for the touchdown catch. Steinfeldt’s kick was true, and the Bulldogs had pulled ahead to stay, 31-24, with 11 seconds left. Benton received the kick and ran a couple plays, one an incomplete pass and the other a catch and four laterals that finally ended with Greenwood recovering the ball, setting off the victory fireworks.

After the game Coach Young didn’t try to hide his team’s blemishes. “We didn’t play very well, and we didn’t coach very well,” he said candidly. “It was a sloppy game from both teams. There were a lot of turnovers. We made a lot of mistakes on offense. The defense played hard and battled. Luckily our defense stepped up when our offense was inconsistent. [But] we made the big plays when we had to and found a way to win when we didn’t play very well.

“You’ve got to give [Benton] credit and that big running back [Russell],” he continued. “I told our defense that either we’re going to get tired of tackling him, or he was going to get tired of us hitting him, and I think he got tired of us hitting him. But he’s a heck of a football player. You feel bad for those guys because they played their tails off tonight. But the Bulldogs came through and we’ve got one more [game] to take care of.”

Asked to expound a little more on his defense and the challenge of stopping one of the top junior running backs in the nation, the coach said, “He had a couple long runs of 20 or 30 yards, but a kid that big and fast and powerful is a dangerous combination. We knew we had to hit him in the backfield before he got started. Our kids battled. He’s 230 pounds and I don’t think we’ve got any 230-pound kids on defense. I was proud of their fight.”

Referring to the play of Hunter Houston, Young said, “Our quarterback ran hard tonight. He didn’t play great at times. He missed some throws, which is not like him. But I was proud of him. He competed his tail off, and if our kids are competing, that’s all we can ask for.” During the regular season the coach didn’t run Houston much due to the potential for injury, and he did miss some time, giving sensational freshman Kane Archer a chance to shine in a couple games.

But against the Panthers, Houston carried the ball 14 times for 59 yards, including a pair of sacks for losses and one rushing touchdown. He also completed 25 of 42 pass attempts for 259 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions, two of which were tipped passes. Several other passes were also dropped by receivers.

“We dropped some balls and we missed some throws, and that’s not like us, so we’ll get some stuff fixed in practice and come back ready to go next week,” said Young. Asked if he was going to give his team any time off since they don’t play until Saturday night, the coach was vague but said, “We’ll figure out a way to let their bodies heal.”

Asked about his two running backs who combined for over 100 yards rushing, Young said, “Both those guys are great kids. They’re competitors and are going to give everything they’ve got. It’s good to have Brayedan [Davis] back healthy. Jake [Glover] wanted the ball. You could see it in his eyes. Nobody wants it more than that kid.”

Statistically, Glover had 13 carries for 72 yards and a touchdown and Davis ran seven times for 30 yards. Grant Karnes had nine receptions for 106 yards, including the big catch of 32 yards on fourth down late in the game. Isaiah Arrington had four catches for 69 yards and a touchdown while L.J. Robins had seven receptions for 49 yards and the winning touchdown. Aiden Kennon had three catches for 15 yards and Noah Chaser had two receptions for 20 yards. All stats are unofficial.

Regarding the final sequence of offensive plays that won the game, the head coach said, “We were a little cautious there at the end because we wanted to score and win the game with no time left. We didn’t want to give that guy [Russell] the ball back. Coach [Stephen] Hogan [offensive coordinator] made a great call, Hunter made a great throw, and L.J. made a great catch, and that’s all she wrote.”

Young has now led his first three teams to the state finals since taking over the reins from former head coach Rick Jones in 2020. Besides making their seventh appearance in the last eight years, Greenwood has reached the finals 16 times since 1996 under then head coach Ronnie Peacock, winning 10 titles with a chance to capture another next Saturday against the Bruins of Pulaski Academy. It should be a barnburner with no clear favorite and the Little Rock forecast is calling for good weather. For fans unable to make the trip, the game will be available on television through Arkansas Public Broadcasting.

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