BENTON -- For a unit that bent about as much as it could in the first half, Benton's defense snapped out of it in the nick of time in the second half to orchestrate a stirring comeback victory for the No. 9 Panthers on Friday night.
After battling back from a double-digit deficit, Benton came up with two huge drive-altering stops in the fourth quarter, including one to snuff out a potential Greenwood rally, to walk away with a 41-40 victory at Panther Stadium.
Casey Johnson carried 21 times for 138 yards and scored 4 touchdowns to lead the way for Benton (7-1, 5-0 6A-West), which erased a 12-point hole in the game's final 5:18 to win its seventh consecutive game. Stran Smith completed 14 of 21 passes for 229 yards with 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions while Cam Harris caught 5 passes for 119 yards with 2 touchdowns -- one of which came on a 25-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter that seemingly jumpstarted a Panthers team that was beaten to the punch by the Bulldogs for nearly 3 1/2 quarters.
"I tell you what, I'm just really proud of my guys because we had a terrible first quarter, really a terrible first half," said Benton Coach Brad Harris, who watched Greenwood score 21 points off his team's three turnovers during the first 24 minutes of play. "We were doing things that we haven't been doing. But give it to [Greenwood] because they made a lot of plays. Still, our guys never panicked, never pushed the button. They just continued to play hard until we finally got some things going."
Greenwood (5-3, 3-2) shredded Benton for the majority of the first half behind quarterback Hunter Houston's three touchdown passes. The Bulldogs eventually took a 28-21 into halftime and held a 40-28 advantage with 6:11 to go after Houston threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Luke Brewer until Benton erupted with big play after big play down the stretch.
Harris answered Brewer's score with a 40-yard touchdown catch to pull the Panthers within 40-34. Benton then came up with a pair of sacks on Greenwood's ensuing possession, the latter of which came on a pivotal third-and-16. The Panthers got the ball back and drove 50 yards in five plays, culminating with Johnson's 3-yard scoring run with 2:13 left. Lucas Wilbur's extra point gave Benton its one-point lead.
The Bulldogs would then march from their 14 to the Benton 43. But on fourth-and-1, Houston was stopped inches short of a first down with 22 seconds remaining, prompting a raucous celebration on the Panthers' sideline.
"We got it down to within six, and that was huge for us because I almost lost it for us on the drive before," Harris said, referring to his team's failed fourth-and-1 attempt from its 34 with just under seven minutes left. "We then get a heck of a drive to go up, and our defense stepped up when they absolutely had to. Greenwood had our number on a couple of other possessions when they were running the zone on us. But again, we made a couple of big-time plays, especially with some huge stops on [Houston]."
Benton eventually sacked Houston five times, but Greenwood's junior quarterback still went 28-of-43 passing for 287 yards and 4 touchdowns. Brewer also caught 11 passes for 113 yards and a score for the Bulldogs, who played without leading rusher Jake Glover but got 128 yards rushing and a touchdown on 18 carries from Javon Williamson.
"We played really hard, and I thought we played well for most of the ballgame," Greenwood Coach Chris Young said. "But we just didn't make the plays at the end of the game to win. We're up 12, had a chance to go up 14 there in the fourth, but we had to go for two and didn't get it because we had a missed extra point. That ended up being the difference in the game."
The Panthers struck first by driving 78 yards in eight plays, with Johnson scoring on an 8-yard run with 9:32 left in the first quarter. But a Smith interception and a fumble by Harris on Benton's next two possessions helped put the Panthers on their heels.
After Houston found Brett Wood for a 20-yard score to tie the game at 7-7, the Bulldogs capitalized on Smith's and Harris' miscues with Aiden Kennon and L.J. Robbins hauling in consecutive 30- and 29-yard touchdown passes.
Johnson and Smith sandwiched separate scoring runs in between an 8-yard touchdown sprint from Williamson over the final nine minutes of the second. Harris later tied the game at 28-28 with his touchdown run, but the Bulldogs regained the lead on the next series on a 9-yarder from Houston with 8:49 left in the game -- setting the stage for the Panthers' rally.
"I really can't say enough about my guys," Harris said. "Just the heart and determination when things looked bad ... they found a way to get it done."