Salt Bowl: Benton Narrows Gap, But Bryant Still Prevails 21-14

by Jim Harris  on Friday, Sep. 2, 2011 11:19 pm  

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For the first time in years, the ballyhooed Saline County "Salt Bowl" played in Pulaski County's War Memorial Stadium took on the look of a real rivalry. Sure, the teams have played the part of angry rivals in recent years with minor scuffles breaking out on the field, but that was only after Class 7A Bryant was on the way to a rout. Friday night, though, Benton finally brought a game comparable to the Hornets', only to fall short 21-14 before 23,586 fans, two-thirds of which were supporting Bryant.

Many of those were gone when Benton scored with 1:36 to play on Wallace Foote's 1-yard dive. The Panthers had taken a too-long 3 1/2 minutes to cover 79 yards in the waning minutes. They had to recover the ensuing onside kick. They failed, though there was a mad scramble all the way to the Hornets 35, and Bryant was able to run out the clock.

"Our defense was spent. If they had gotten that onside kick, we were going to lose," Bryant Coach Paul Calley said.

The past few years, the game was all but decided by half. This time, Bryant held just a 7-0 advantage, set up by a muffed Benton punt attempt that gave the Hornets a short field. Hornets junior quarterback Hayden Lessenberry found Dillion Winfrey for a 10-yard touchdown completion.

Benton's expected improved offense didn't show in the first half. Foote, the Panthers' biggest threat, had 50 of the Panthers 54 total yards. Quarterback Dylan Harris struggled, completing just 3 of 11 with one interception for 7 yards.

"I told him [at halftime], it was time to straight up. It was time to be a quarterback," Benton Coach Scott Neathery said.

The Panthers woke up offensively, but not until Bryant also picked up the pace with a 46-yard drive to open the second half following Aaron Bell's 49-yard kickoff return. Karon Dismuke rambled the final 13 yards, and Bryant had a two-touchdown lead.

Harris hit six of his first 8 passes of the second half. Benton covered 79 yards in 12 plays, culminating with Harris' 4-yard keeper, to cut the deficit in half with 3:55 left in the third quarter.

Lessenberry threw one up for grabs to start the fourth quarter, and Benton's Caleb Davis intercepted at his 44. The suddenly aroused Panthers bogged down at the Bryant 13, and Sean Carrigan was wide right with a 30-yard field goal attempt.

That momentarily seemed to drain Benton, as Bryant covered 80 yards in six plays. Dismuke scored from 27 yards out with 5:09 left and Jace Denkens converted for a 21-7 lead.

But Benton didn't fold up.

"As far as effort, I'm pleased. We played our guts out," said Neathery, whose team won 3 games in 2010 and during the off-season had to forfeit those victories. "We stuck with it and got back in the game. But we're in the business of winning, and we didn't win.

"We're trying to build our program, and what we're needing is that defining victory. I thought we might get it tonight. We'll keep trying to get it."

Calley, not happy with the first-half offensive performance and with several penalties incurred, said, "We almost beat ourselves out there, and Benton played great. They got some life in them in the second half ... It was an ugly game, but an exciting game .. Our defense played their guts out. Benton kept plugging."

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