By ROY LANG III, Journal Sports
In the final minute of Benton’s Division I Non-Select second-round playoff game against Denham Springs, fireworks lit up Tiger Stadium to celebrate a victory by the home team and a spot in the quarterfinals.
Benton didn’t win.
Denham did, 29-28, thanks to an ending that will be bitterly remembered by the Tigers and treasured by the Yellow Jackets.
With a two-point edge and the ball at Denham Springs’ 49, the Tigers looked to be in good position. However, Benton got a little too cute and then, in its mind, gypped by the referees.
On fourth down with a running clock, Benton knelt on its 13-yard line and thought it punched a ticket to the quarters. However, after the play, the scoreboard still displayed 0.6 seconds. Denham Springs’ Caleb LeBlanc, who struggled all season, subsequently kicked a 30-yard field goal to put a cap on one of the most stunning finishes you’ll see at a sporting event.
“We just got cheated out of a football game,” said Benton coach Reynolds Moore, who bolted toward the officiating crew and unleashed a tirade after the ball went through the uprights. “They told me to snap it at 1 (second left), we snapped it at 1. I didn’t call time out because both officials said, ‘Coach you’re good, snap it at 1,’ and so we did and then (the LHSAA clock operator) up in the freaking press box stops it and cheats my guys out of a game.”
A field goal should have never been in play. On third down, Benton’s Pearce Russell attempted to run around and waste time before taking a knee. However, a handful of penalty flags were thrown for multiple holding violations.
Suddenly, the Tigers were backed up and still had to kneel twice in the final 42 seconds. They did, but didn’t completely erase the clock.
“That was a wild sequence of events,” Yellow Jackets head coach Brett Beard said. “I knew there was going to be a shot with some time and we did a good job to try to make it happen. The game is never over until the clock strikes zero – that’s something you teach these kids and these coaches. Everyone has to know this game must be played for 48 minutes.”
Getting the opportunity to kick was a miracle. Making it may have been, too.
“(Our kicking game) — it’s been bad,” Beard said. “(Caleb) has made some good kicks, but he hasn’t had a chance to make any big kicks. At that point, that’s all you have. You say, ‘Kid, everything can be deleted from the year when you make this kick,’ and he came through.”
LeBlanc is a Louisiana Christian University commit who put his struggles behind him and couldn’t have picked a better time to nail his longest field goal of the season.
“When I heard Coach scream for the field goal unit I kind of just froze in the moment and realized I’ve been waiting on this moment my entire high school career,” LeBlanc said. “I walked out confident and remembered everything I’ve been taught.
“All you have to do is believe in yourself. I won’t forget this night any time soon. This is the best night ever.”
Denham Springs (10-2) moves on to play host to Ruston in the quarterfinals.
“(If the refs don’t tell me we’re good), we call timeout and we get things settled,” Moore said. “We do what we did (on the first third down) and have Pearce run around for a minute and fall down. They told me, ‘Coach, don’t worry about it,’ and then pulled that crap.
“It’s the worst officiating I’ve seen. They cheated my guys out of a game. They can do whatever they want. My guys just got hosed and that’s bull crap.”
The loss spoiled what had been a stellar effort from Benton’s defense, at least for the first 41 minutes.
“The defense played phenomenal all night,” Moore said. “This is the best ever we’ve seen from them and the offense just didn’t get it done. We just couldn’t get a first down, couldn’t do anything.”
A 1-yard touchdown run by Greg Manning gave Benton (8-4) a 28-14 lead with 5:16 left in the game. Denham Springs needed just two plays to answer as Camron Eirick hauled in a 49-yard touchdown pass — his second of three on the night — from Reese Mooney, but the Yellow Jackets missed the extra point.
Denham Springs recovered an onside kick and scored again four plays later – a 46-yard connection between Mooney and Eirick. The 2-point conversion failed with 3:59 left.
After forcing Benton into a three-and-out, Denham Springs’ hopes appeared to be extinguished when it failed on fourth down near midfield. However, the Tigers failed to close the door. Instead they let the Yellow Jackets get into field goal position and were foiled by a final-minute calamity and a trigger finger.
“It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever been a part of,” Beard said.
Eirick had six catches for 158 yards, while Mooney completed 16 of 34 passes for 326 yards and four touchdowns.
Manning finished with 103 yards on 34 carries. His team didn’t trail until the final gun and led for more than 40 minutes.
Friday’s controversy signaled a not-so-fitting end for Tigers seniors, like quarterback Gray Walters (9-of-21 passing for 184 yards and a touchdown) and Russell (five catches for 154 yards).
“I’m trying to tell the officials, ‘You’re taking this away from (the seniors) and they don’t get another shot.’ This is a playoff football game, this is not Week 8 or Week 9,” Moore said. “You can’t blow this, and they blew it.”
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Denham Springs 29, Benton 28
D. Springs | 0 | 7 | 7 | 15 | – 29
Benton | 14 | 7 | 0 | 7 | – 28
B-Gray Walters 14 run (Peyton May kick)
B-Pearce Russell 38 pass from Walters (May kick)
D-Camron Eirick 15 pass from Reese Mooney (Caleb LeBlanc kick)
B-Andy Lim 5 pass from Walters (May kick)
D-Eirick 33 pass from Mooney (LeBlanc kick)
B-Greg Manning 1 run (May kick)
D-Micah Harrison 49 pass from Mooney (kick blocked)
D-Eirick 46 pass from Mooney (pass failed)
D-LeBlanc 30 field goal
Denham Springs – Ray McKneely 13-34, Cam Kelly 9-34, Micah Harrison 3-27, Jerry Horne 1-1, , Mooney 2-1.
Benton – Greg Manning 33-104, Gray Walters 6-36, Landon Duggan 1-0, Team 1-(-31).
Denham Springs – Reese Mooney 16-34-0-326; Horne 4-7-0-(minus-4).
Benton – Walters 9-21-0-184.
Denham Springs – Camron Eirick 6-158, Harrison 6-77, McNeely 3-36, Andrew Goodwin 1-1, Rylan Hyatt 1-15, Seth Bishop 1-8, Maison Vorise 1-8.
Benton – Pearce Russell 5-154, Manning 3-19, Andy Lim 2-11.