The Benton defense has taken its share of lumps this season, especially during the Tigers’ 0-4 start in District 1-5A.
That ended Thursday night at Tiger Stadium. Benton snapped its four-game losing streak with a 44-25 victory over the Southwood Cowboys.
Benton gave up just one defensive touchdown. The Cowboys’ other touchdowns came on a kickoff return, a fumble return and an interception return.
“I thought our defense was lights out,” Benton head coach Reynolds Moore said. “I think they played really well. Even though they gave up chunks of yards one or two times they bowed their neck and came back and played. That’s something we haven’t seen from them. I’m hoping that confidence-building right there off a young defense we’ll take into next week against a really, really tough Airline team.”
Benton improved to 4-4 overall and 1-4 in district. It was the first district victory for the program as a member of 1-5A. Southwood dropped to 0-8 and 0-5. The Cowboys have lost 60 straight district games on the field.
“It feels amazing,” said Benton middle linebacker Ashur Hall. “We made some mistakes but we fought back. We learned from the past weeks and we shook back.”
While the defense should definitely take a bow, the offense also deserves some credit. Cameron Barnett rushed for more than 200 yards through some big holes created by his line and scored four touchdowns.
But as much as Benton dominated, the Tigers didn’t take the lead for good until early in the fourth quarter.
After Malik Antwine’s good punt return into Cowboys territory, Barnett scored his third touchdown. Caleb Cassidy’s two-point conversion pass to Antwine gave the Tigers a 28-25 lead with 11:13 to play.
The Tigers pinned the Cowboys inside the 5 on the ensuing kickoff. A few minutes later it looked like Benton recovered a fumble in the end zone. At least one official signaled touchdown.
But after some discussion, officials ruled the running back’s forward progress was stopped just outside the end zone. Undaunted, the defense trotted back on the field and made a tackle in the end zone for a safety and a 30-25 lead.
The Tigers then lost a fumble. But Tyler Ivy got the ball back with an interception.
Benton was forced to punt. On fourth-and-7 from its 23, Southwood barely got a first down on a fake punt. But Hall picked up a loose ball in the backfield and returned it inside the 20.
The Tigers then scored two touchdowns in 2:30 to put the game away. The first was a Barnett run and the second a 16-yard pass from Cassidy to Antwine.
Moore was more than happy to put the losing streak in the rearview mirror.
“Any time you get a win it doesn’t really matter how or by how much especially after you’ve had a tough four weeks,” he said. “Our guys come back, get to play at home. Feels like it’s been forever since we’ve been at home. So to play in front of our fans on Thursday night with a good crowd, we’re just excited to get that win.”
As you might expect in a program that has grown used to winning, the losing streak has been a challenge for Moore and his staff. But he remained confident in his players.
“I think a man’s true character is revealed during times of adversity,” he said. “I think some of our guys have revealed their character. The ones who have character, who have integrity, who love the game of football, who love this school, came out here and battled tonight. It was good to see that. To know those guys are coming back for another year, maybe two in a lot of cases, we’re fired up about that too.”
Benton got off to a good start. Barnett kept the Tigers’ first touchdown drive alive with a catch on fourth-and-5. Cassidy then completed an 11-yard TD pass to Antwine.
After the defense stopped the Cowboys on fourth-and-11 at the Benton 23, the Tigers drove to their second touchdown, an 11-yard Barnett run. But RJ Moore missed his only PAT attempt and Benton led 13-0 with 4:40 left in the half.
It took Southwood just 38 seconds to tie it. First came the kickoff return followed by the fumble return. The Cowboys decided to go for two after the second TD after Benton was called for offsides. The Tigers dropped the back for a loss and the game was tied at 13.
Southwood threatened again late in the quarter. Several pass completions moved the Cowboys to the 9. But Jaden Miller made an interception at the 2 with 33.8 seconds left.
It looked like it would be tied at the half. But the Cowboys picked off a Cassidy pass and returned it for a touchdown with just 9.9 seconds left. Benton’s Aiden Colvin intercepted a pass on the two-point conversion attempt and Southwood led 19-13 at the half.
After a kickoff return to the Benton 27 to open the second half, Southwood threatened to take a two-touchdown lead. Overcoming personal foul and pass interference penalties, the Tigers kept the Cowboys out of the end zone, forcing an incomplete pass on fourth-and-15.
Benton then drove almost the length of the field behind the running of Barnett, who ripped off some big gains. His 5-yard TD run and Moore’s PAT gave the Tigers a 20-19 lead.
After a punt gave the Tigers good field position, they failed to convert a fourth down near midfield. Southwood scored on the next play to go up 25-20 with 4:34 left in the third quarter.
That set the stage for Benton’s strong finish. The Tigers outscored the Cowboys 24-0 the rest of the way.
Benton hosts District 1-5A co-leader Airline (6-1, 4-0) next Friday night in the first football game between the schools.
At No. 34 in the latest 5A power rankings, the Tigers need to move up at least two spots in the next two weeks to make the playoffs. An upset of Airline would just about guarantee a playoff spot.