One of the marks of a great football team is the ability to handle adversity on the road in the playoffs.
The Benton Tigers did just that against the defending state champion East Jefferson Warriors in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs Friday in Metairie.
Leading 24-13 with about six minutes left to play and about to put the game away, the Tigers fumbled inside the East Jefferson 5-yard line. The Warriors recovered and returned the ball to the Benton 3.
Two plays later, East Jefferson (7-5) scored. Benton stopped the two-point conversion, but all of a sudden it was 24-19 with 5:49 left in the game.
So how did the Tigers react? They drove the ball straight down the field, converting a couple of third downs along the way, and scored with 50 seconds left. Brayden Hutchinson got the TD on a 3-yard run and Jordan White kicked the PAT for a 31-19 victory.
Benton (10-2), the No. 4 seed, will host No. 5 Warren Easton (10-2) in the quarterfinals Friday. Warren Easton defeated Peabody 57-20 in its semifinal game.
Benton is in the quarterfinals for the first time since 2009.
“It’s big for our program,” said second-year head coach Reynolds Moore. “It’s something that I think people from Benton have expected of this program. I think it’s something they are right to expect. Certainly we’ve been blessed and had some breaks, maybe, but not a ton of breaks. The ones we’ve had I feel like we earned those and our guys have worked hard to get them.”
Moore wasn’t surprised by how his team reacted after the Warriors’ fumble return.
“Our team has a team-first concept and they have an attitude of doing whatever it takes, and I mean that, whatever it takes,” Moore said.
He credited tight end Keon Coleman with chasing down the East Jefferson player on the fumble return.
“He made them run two plays to score, made them run time off the clock,” Moore said. “That set the tone. It said, ‘You know, it doesn’t matter what kind of mistakes we make we’re all in this together,’ and that kind of team attitude kind of showed up when we got back on offense.”
Benton dominated the game statistically. According to stats kept by The Times-Picayune, the Tigers had 20 first downs to the Warriors 10. Benton had 317 total yards to 197 for East Jefferson.
“I really think we wore them down, pushed tempo hard all night,” Moore said. “We were snapping the ball within five seconds. That was kind of our plan coming in, push tempo, get a play in and go. We did that early. You could see them early really wearing down. It kind of gave our guys some confidence and made them a little bit stronger. They were just sucking wind. We just kept pounding it at ’em.”
The Warriors, primarily a running team, had 192 yards on the ground, but only 16 in the second half. They only attempted four passes, completing two for five yards.
Benton rushed for 179 yards and passed for 138. Freshman quarterback Garrett Hable completed 15 of 25 passes with no interceptions and also rushed for 34 yards. Benton’s lone turnover was the late fumble.
“I think this is probably the best game we’ve played all year,” Moore said. “We’ve put together some complete efforts, but with the exception of the fumble it’s the best we played overall as a team even with the missed PATs. The offense moved the football very. very well all night. The defense got a lot of stops and made a lot of tackles for loss and made it really tough on ’em.”
To advance in the playoffs, it also takes some breaks and great individual efforts. Benton got a few of those and more importantly took advantage of them. The Tigers’ first TD, a 15-yard pass from Hable to TJ Anderson, came after Benton recovered a muffed punt.
After the Warriors took a 7-6 lead, Chauncey Taylor scored on a 3-yard run to put Benton back on top 12-6. East Jefferson answered and led 13-12 at the half.
On the first play of the second half, the Warriors had a touchdown called back because of holding. The Tigers then recovered a fumble and drove for a touchdown, a 17-yard pass from Hable to Tyler Stephens.
Back in punt formation on fourth down, White kept Benton’s next touchdown drive alive with a run for a first down. Taylor got the score on a 1-yard run.
Moore said senior leadership has been a major key to the Tigers’ success this season.
“Our seniors have really led the way the whole time, and that’s big for them, taking the lumps they did as sophomores and coming back and playing now,” Moore said. “I think that’s a lot of what you can point to to our success this year.”
The Tigers are 6-0 on the road this year, but the trip to Metairie is the first time they have had to leave the area for a game.
“One of the things we told our guys was to soak it up and enjoy this,” Moore said “You don’t know when you’ll do this again. Enjoy it make the most of it, but don’t let it overwhelm you. Just appreciate it. And our guys did that. But when it was time to play it was time to play.”
Moore also credited the large contingent of Benton fans who made the trip.
“In the fourth quarter when we started mashing on ’em and getting it going and the defense playing well it just got louder and louder,” he said. “Our band made the trip. It was just a phenomenal atmosphere just being on the road.”