The defenses were dominant in the first half. The offenses were resurgent afterward.
Special teams mishaps were impactful. In a season-opening matchup with plenty of plot twists, Benton at Northwood came down to one two-point conversion pass with 2:15 left.
The Tigers successfully defended it, or the Falcons failed to catch it, depending on your perspective. Unquestionably, it was the difference in Benton heading home with a 28-26 triumph Friday night – but not until Tigers coach Reynolds Moore had to confront the bitter ending to last season.
“It was a little fun, but not too much fun,” said a disappointed, but proud Northwood coach Austin Brown.
“Whew!,” exclaimed Benton’s Moore.
Defense ruled the first 24 minutes. Northwood broke through first, but missed a point-after kick. Benton countered with a minute left in the opening half, getting the first of Greg Manning’s ridiculously routine four touchdowns, and went ahead 7-6 at the break.
The Falcons roared out of the locker room, mounting two scoring drives to surge ahead 20-7 in the third period. The Tigers pounced back, answering the burst with one of their own.
Manning scored twice in a short stretch. On a pooch kickoff after his second touchdown, Benton jarred the ball loose from a Northwood upback and recovered. The visitors quickly reached the end zone again for a sudden 21-20 advantage.
“We came out after halftime and thought we had their number, had a plan, and it worked to perfection to get us up 20-7,” said Northwood’s Brown. “But then we shanked a punt, they got a short field at the 35, drove in and scored. We didn’t handle the kickoff, they recovered and punched it in right away.
“We scored two,” he said, “then they scored three unanswered.”
The last Benton TD, the fourth for the prolific Tiger running back, opened an eight-point advantage in the fourth period. But Northwood didn’t wilt, with new starting quarterback Hutson Hearron guiding a drive downfield, including his 12-yard scramble to convert a fourth down.
The Falcons scored with 2:15 left. Down by two, Hearron’s pass under heavy pressure was on the money but fell incomplete – knocked loose, it appeared from the Benton sideline, maybe mishandled from Northwood’s view.
Although the Falcons were out of timeouts, Reynolds immediately suffered an ugly case of déjà vu. Benton’s 2022 season ended in Round 2 of the playoffs, at home, when the Tigers were unable to run out the clock, mistakenly taking a knee a second too fast on fourth down at their own 13 with 0.6 left, all that Denham Springs needed to kick a game-winning 30-yard field goal.
“I know this: after the way our season ended last year, I was terrified,” admitted Moore. “I didn’t want to look at the stands because everybody was probably thinking the same thing I was. The worst thing is, all my career, I feel like clock management has been one of my strengths, but we didn’t get it done last year. We did this time.
“It was a tough game. Northwood, from the opening kickoff, they were as physical as we’ve ever seen them. I said all week they were a more dangerous team than we’d seen previously, and they were,” he said. “We capitalized on the loose ball on the kickoff, got ahead, and we were just tough enough to win.”
Benton’s coach praised sophomore kicker Will Petro, who was perfect on PATs and effective on kickoffs in his first start. Senior cornerback Caden Lee and middle linebacker Braden Jackson were defensive stalwarts for the winners.
Brown, while disappointed, drew solace from his team’s ability to rally after halftime and under the gun late.
“Absolutely. We’ve gotten pretty good at coming from behind, some good rallies starting a couple years ago against Westgate, then Evangel and North DeSoto last year, and nearly got all the way back on Brother Martin, who won a state championship,” he said. “I am proud of the way the boys were resilient, came back and scored that touchdown late.”
A Northwood standout in his first start was sophomore running back Kyran Johnson, said Brown, along with Hearron, who “played well enough for us to win.”
Both teams have rugged games just ahead. Benton travels to Texas High, then hosts Newman. Northwood meets Wossman at home next week, then goes to Airline.