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Bryant takes advantage of early Benton miscues to run away with the Salt Bowl, 38-17

The Hornets led 31-7 at halftime.

By Jeff Halpern | Photos by Jimmy Jones

LITTLE ROCK — Bryant took advantage of early mistakes by the Benton Panthers in a 38-17 victory in the annual Salt Bowl in front of an announced crowd of 29,150 at War Memorial Stadium on Saturday night. 

After recovering an onside kick by Bryant to start the game, the Panthers moved to the Hornets’ 12 in six plays before Lucas Wilbur missed a 29-yard field goal at the 7:37 mark. 

Four plays later, with the Hornets going for it on fourth and one from its 29, the Panthers appeared to be in good position when Jordan Walker’s pass to Jordan Knox fell incomplete, however a roughing the passer penalty by Benton gave the Hornets at first down at the Panthers’ 44. Four plays later, Walker, the Hornets’ sophomore quarterback making the first start of his career, found Knox over the middle for a 43-yard touchdown pass. Stephen Fuller’s kick was good and Bryant led 7-0.

“If we go down and score and kick field goal, that’s momentum,” said Benton head coach Brad Harris.

 “Lucas Wilbur hits that 8 out of 9 times from that spot. We think we’re getting off the field, and then we extend the drive.”

Bryant head coach Buck James told his players before the game to expect an onside kick to begin the contest.

“I’ve never started a game with an onside kick, but I thought we had good opportunity. The ball was free, but we just didn’t get it. Our defense bent,” he said. “They missed a field goal. We took advantage. That’s what good football teams do.”

Things quickly went downhill for the Panthers. After a punt, Drake Fowler returned the ball 41 yards to the Benton 7 before he fumbled, but Traylon Russ recovered at the Benton 7 and ran it in for a touchdown at the 3:34 mark. Fuller’s kick was good and the Hornets led 14-0.

Benton faced fourth and one from its’ 33 at the 11:36 mark in the second quarter when Elias Payne was stopped for a 3-yard loss by Malachi Graham and Russ.

“We knew coming in here we had to shorten the game as much as possible,” said Harris. “We knew their defensive line and linebackers were very good. “We had to limit their possessions and convert on fourth down. We rolled the dice and we didn’t do that.”

Two plays later, Walker, who completed 12-of-19 passes for 251 yards and 4 touchdowns, found Mytorian Singleton in the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown. Fuller’s kick was good and the Hornets led 21-0.

Benton took advantage of a Brandon Johnson fumble at the 9:32 mark and scored six plays later when University of Arkansas commit and recent transfer Braylen Russell, who led the Panthers’ with 107 yards rushing on 27 carries, scored his first of two touchdowns on a 7-yard run. Wilbur’s kick was good and the Hornets led 21-7l

The Hornets responded with a 15-play, 80-yard drive that featured a 16-yard pass from Walker to Singleton on fourth and seven, giving the Hornets the ball at the Panther 14. After a 9-yard run by Chris Gannaway, Walker threw 5 yards to Singleton at the 4:22 mark. Fuller’s kick made it 28-7.

“Jordan Walker played well,” said James. “He did exactly what I thought he would do. He’s ready for it. I’m not surprised. He’s practiced very well.”

Walker had waited for this moment for a while.

“For a 15-year-old kid, this is one of the biggest moments of my life. I learned I was the first sophomore to start for Bryant in the Salt Bowl in 12-13 years and never played in front of that many people,” he said.

Bryant closed out the first half with a 25-yard field goal by Fuller to make it 31-7.

After Patrick Shipp intercepted Walker at the Bryant 39, the Panthers’ marched to the Bryant 13 in 7 plays before Donovan Pearson caught Gary Rideout’s pass inside the Hornet’ 5 and fumbled. Bryant recovered in the end zone. Seven plays later, Walker found Carson Trickey on a crossing patter for a 29-yard touchdown at the 4:42 mark. Fuller’s kick made it 38-7.

Russell scored on a 6-yard run at the 11:25 mark of the fourth quarter and Wilbur added a 36-yard field goal with 7:27 left in the game to set the final margin.

“I thought we played well in the first half,” said James. “There are a lot of things we can do better. We were a little soft in the middle on defense. We played well. I’m proud of our football team. We played 88 kids. We played a lot of young kids tonight and that will help us get better.”

The Hornets finished with 381 yards (252 passing and 129 rushing) with 16 first downs. Benton had 274 yards (103 passing from Rideout and Jack Woolbright and 171 yards rushing) while holding a 27:18-20:42 advantage in time of possession.

However, the Panthers had four turnovers.

Harris said, “We’ve got to take out the mental mistakes we are making against good teams like that. We knew we had to play flawless.

We had too many turnovers. We can’t make mistakes like that.We had to keep the ball on the ground. It didn’t work out for us. They played a lot better than us. We made more mistakes than than they did.”

Bryant was penalized 7 times for 67 yards, including two pass interference penalties and roughing the passer penalty on the drive in which Benton kicked its field goal.

“We’ve got to be disciplined,” said James. “We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to play cleaner. We have to be smarter. It’s the first game of the year, those things happen. We have two more non conference games and then we get into conference schedule.”