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Wilkinson leads Bulldogs in return to state semi-finals

Wilkinson leads Bulldogs in return to state semi-finals

For the 14th time in the past 16 years the Greenwood Bulldogs are returning to the state semi-finals after a 24-7 win over Siloam Springs last Friday night at Smith-Robinson Stadium. The quarterfinal victory over the Panthers earned the ‘Dogs the right to face Searcy next Friday, with the winner moving on to the 6A championship game on December 7th.

While every victory is considered a team effort, much of the credit for last Friday’s win rightly belongs to Hunter Wilkinson, who rushed for a career high 222 yards on 27 carries, unofficially. Of course, the junior running back also got help from his offensive line which opened some nice holes for him.

Actually, it was Siloam Springs’ senior running back Jackson Norberg who had been getting a lot of attention lately, rushing for nearly 800 yards in his previous four games, including a 251-yard effort against Marion in the opening round of the playoffs. And while Norberg ran well against the Bulldogs (150/37), it was Wilkinson that stole the show.

Coming off a bye week, Greenwood appeared a bit lethargic in the first half, struggling to move the ball consistently and missing a short field goal. The defense was solid though, and the game was tied at the break, 7-7.

The Bulldogs then took charge in the second half, scoring 17 unanswered points behind Wilkinson’s strong effort, while the GHS defense continued its hammerlock on the Panthers’ run-oriented offense.

After punting on their opening possession to start the game, the visiting Panthers scored on their second offensive series, driving 80 yards after the Bulldogs missed a 27-yard field goal try on their initial possession.

Norberg did most of the damage behind an enormous offensive line, but he could never quite shake free of the GHS defense, which limited him to single-digit gains for most of the game. It took 13 plays, but Norberg finally scored from two yards out. The extra point put the Panthers on top, 7-0, with 25 seconds left in the first quarter.

But the Bulldogs responded quickly, scoring less than two minutes into the second period after an 11-play drive. Caden Brown set up the possession with a nice kick return of 25 yards to the Greenwood 34. Quarterback Jace Presley then threw three consecutive passes to receiver Treyton Dawson, reaching the Panthers’ 42-yard-line.

After a penalty on Greenwood, Presley passed to Dawson again for a short gain, then to Wilkinson for 11 yards to the 34. A penalty on the visitors moved the ball to the 29, then Wilkinson rambled to the 18 for a first down.

Three plays later, facing third-and-nine, Presley completed a clutch pass over the middle into the end zone and the waiting arms of Caden Brown for the touchdown. Kicker Jackson Stewart added the extra point (10:07).

The remaining time was spent in the middle of the field with both teams getting a pass interception to steal an offensive possession away from the other team. Greenwood’s pick came on the final play of the half when senior Colton Tuck snagged an errant pass near the GHS 20 and almost returned it for a touchdown before finally going down at the Panthers’ 17.

Greenwood received the opening kick of the second half, returned by Brown to the 20-yard-line. Presley then passed to Lazaro Angel for seven yards before Wilkinson rambled for 17 more to the 44. A short pass to Brown reached the 48 followed by another run by Wilkinson to the Siloam Springs’ 42, moving the sticks.

Presley to Brown netted another 20 yards to the 22, then running back Aaron Ligon ploughed his way to the 12. Back in the game, Wilkinson ran twice more, the first time for three yards, then scored on a 9-yard burst through the middle of the Panthers’ defense. Stewart added the extra point for a 14-7 GHS lead at the 10:06 mark.

Siloam Springs tried to respond with a 43-yard drive of its own, reaching the Greenwood 34. But a fourth down try by the Panthers was stuffed by Bulldogs’ junior defensive lineman Beau Asher, who found his way into the visitors’ backfield to record a 3-yard loss, giving the ball back to Greenwood.

The Bulldogs then marched 53 yards in 10 plays before having to settle for a 27-yard field goal from Stewart. During the series, Wilkinson had runs of 15 and 21 yards besides a handful of lesser carries totaling 46 yards. The ‘Dogs faced third-and-goal at the Panthers’ 5-yard-line, but a QB sack followed, forcing the field goal in the final minute of the third quarter.

Leading 17-7, the GHS defense continued its stranglehold on the Panthers, limiting Norberg to small gains and stifling the anemic Siloam Springs’ passing attack. As the contest moved into the fourth period, the Bulldogs gave up a long pass play into home territory, but quickly regrouped to get the ball back on downs at their own 33.

From there Greenwood drove for its final score to put the game away. The series took seven plays, the first six of which were rushing plays, five by Wilkinson and one by Presley. From the Panthers’ 14, Presley finished off the possession with a scoring strike to Treyton Dawson in the back left corner of the end zone. Stewart’s kick made it 24-7 with 7:45 left to play.

The remaining time was not uneventful, with linebacker Jayden Martin picking off a Siloam Springs’ pass near mid-field, and the Bulldogs driving deep into enemy territory in the waning minutes of the game. An 18-yard run by Aaron Ligon reached the visitors’ 8-yard-line before Coach Jones called off the ‘Dogs. Presley then downed the ball a couple of times to run out the clock on the quarterfinal victory.

“I was proud of our kids,” said Jones in his post-game comments. “They remember how the game went last time. It was 15-13 at halftime, and it was almost the same scenario tonight. It was a 7-7 ballgame. [At halftime] we had to get ready to go play. Our offensive line got some things going in the second half, Hunter ran the ball awesomely, the defense made some stops, and we got a couple of turnovers. I was proud of the way our kids battled back.”

As for the play of Wilkinson, Jones was effusive in his praise. “He earned it,” said the coach when apprised of the junior’s rushing stats. “He got a few chunks, but for the most part it was workmanlike and consistent. He was good and we had some holes. He hit the creases and we were making some [big] plays.”

He then spoke of his team’s offensive balance and potential. “If we can run the football consistently, with the way we throw it – we can throw and catch it pretty well – if we can just get it all together,” he said hopefully. “Thank goodness we’ve got at least another week and we’re going to try to get better.”

Asked about in-game adjustments, Jones said, “We changed some things at halftime. Coach [Jason] Gill and the defensive staff did a great job and we were a lot better in the second half. But I give Siloam Springs all the credit in the world. Those guys are a different football team. They were confident coming off their win on the road [at Marion], traveling across the state and beating the #3 seed. They battled us tough.

“They had a big, physical offensive line, and those kids did a good job blocking us the first time we played them. But #2 (Norberg) never falls backwards. He falls forward every single time. I was so impressed with that kid.”

Concerning the bye week, Jones said he felt good about it. “I thought we had a great week. We went hard two days and light two days. I thought it went well. The kids had great attitudes. We had good practices.

“We were a little sluggish coming out, but I don’t think it was because of the bye week. It just took us a little while to get going. [The Panthers] have improved a ton since the first time we played them. It seemed like three months since we’d played a game. It seemed like forever. Two weeks is a long time in high school football.”

Also asked about using quarterback Jace Presley in the running game, Jones said it’s time to pull out all the stops. The senior passed for 143 yards and two touchdowns, but unlike previous games, Presley ran several times against the Panthers.

“He had some nice runs,” Jones said. “We’re getting to that point where it’s do-or-die. There’s no reason to hold him back. Honestly, we tried to reduce his carries throughout the regular season, but now there’s nothing to save up for.”

So now the Bulldogs (10-1) must travel to Searcy next Friday for a semifinal matchup with the Lions (10-1), the #1 seed from the 6A East. Searcy easily defeated Pine Bluff last Friday, 55-15.

The Lions are also the highest scoring team in Class 6A with 494 points on the season. Greenwood is second at 457, but the GHS defense has allowed just 167 points compared to Searcy’s 246 points.

“We know we have a huge opponent next week and we’re going to have to play a great game,” said the coach. “Searcy is a really good football team. They’ve got a big offensive line, a nice running back and quarterback, and a 6’3” wide receiver, and they are playing better defense.”

The Lions have quality wins this season over playoff teams Morrilton and Batesville of Class 5A, plus West Memphis and Marion, both 6A. Their only loss was to conference foe Jonesboro, 44-34. The only common opponent for Greenwood and Searcy was Sheridan. In week none the Bulldogs beat the Yellowjackets 42-0, while the Lions beat Sheridan, 39-7, in week two.

While the cold, wet weather kept a lot of Bulldogs’ fans at home last Friday, Jones knows the value of having a good crowd on the road, especially in the playoffs. “We need to travel [well] and make the drive,” he said. “It’s important for our kids. When they look up and see the visitors’ stands rocking and rolling, it’s always fun.” Game time Friday night is 7 p.m.

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