Lo­cal teams re­turn to grid­iron tonight.

El Dorado News-Times - - Front Page - By Tony Burns Sports Edi­tor

Even when El Do­rado plays Ben­ton in the reg­u­lar sea­son, the games have a play­off at­mos­phere.

Tonight’s matchup at Memo­rial Sta­dium should be no dif­fer­ent as the two 5-1 squads vie for a 6A West cham­pi­onship and play­off po­si­tion­ing.

“This is a huge deal as far as that goes. They haven’t played Green­wood, yet. They don’t have a con­fer­ence loss but, ei­ther way, who­ever wins it has a huge leg up to be in the top two, which means you get home field un­til the semi­fi­nals at least,” said El Do­rado coach Scott Reed.

“Go­ing to the East num­ber one would be your only road trip, which is a big deal.

“But, there’s a lot of games left. It’s a big, big game for us, though.”

The Wild­cats have a 27-14 edge in the se­ries but the Pan­thers have won the last five, in­clud­ing sea­son-end­ing play­off losses in 2015 and 2014.

El Do­rado’s last win in the se­ries was 51-34 in the 2013 play­offs.

Ben­ton won last year’s game 41-9 and has outscored the Wild­cats 169-56 in the last five meet­ings.

This year’s Pan­thers, since open­ing the year with a 49-42 loss to Bryant, have carved out five con­sec­u­tive wins over Parkview (39-25), Green­brier (42-16), Russellville (42-20), Siloam Springs (49-14) and Texarkana (38-19).

“They’re re­ally good. They have a re­ally good run­ning back,” said Reed, who said this year’s Ben­ton team is more run-ori­ented. “They run it more this year. Ac­tu­ally, they’re 62 or 63 per­cent run. They’re still in the gun spread out. They’ll run both the run­ning back and the quar­ter­back. The run­ning back (Zak Wal­lace) is re­ally good. He’s just a ju­nior but he is a tal­ent. He’s a big kid and down­hill. He’s fast, phys­i­cal. He’s a good player.

“They still throw it around some but they’re more run than they have been in the past.”

Sopho­more Pey­ton Hud­gins be­came the third quar­ter­back to start for the Pan­thers last week, com­plet­ing 13-of26 for 137 and rush­ing for 94.

“We need to be able to limit them and get them off the field. We want to be able to make them throw it. I would say we have to be able to tackle their big guy, not let him have a big night run­ning the ball,” said Reed, who was op­ti­mistic Thurs­day that in­jured se­nior line­backer Tyrek Rucks would be back on the field for the Wild­cats. “We think he’ll be avail­able to play.” Af­ter a slow start, the Wild­cats shut out Sheri­dan in the sec­ond half last week in a 49-14 road win.

“I thought we played good in the sec­ond half at Sheri­dan,” Reed said of the de­fense. “We set­tled down. I think we’ve been bet­ter this week in prac­tice than we’ve been in awhile.”

De­fen­sively, Ben­ton lines up in a rare 3-3-5 align­ment, which brings its own unique set of chal­lenges.

“They’re odd front, triple stack, bring a lot of pres­sure,” said Reed. “You just have to go over and over in prac­tice. It’s hard to sim­u­late. You do a lot of walk-through first, do a lot of watch­ing film, see how they insert. The thing that’s dif­fer­ent about it, they play with three down and most times they just bring one guy, which gets you to a fourth down guy. The hard part is know­ing where he’s com­ing and be­ing alert. Be­cause, you don’t know, they’ll bring any of five dif­fer­ent guys. You have to have your eyes up and step the cor­rect way. You have to pick things up. When you don’t see it all the time, it’s hard to get a han­dle on it in a week.”

Ac­cord­ing to KIX 103 foot­ball statis­ti­cian Bill Evans, El Do­rado quar­ter­back Dar­ius Holly has com­pleted 68-of-101 passes for 1,122 yards with 11 touch­downs and one in­ter­cep­tion. Taliq Ellis (19-318, 3TD), Keshun Greene (17274, 1TD) and Shun Liv­ingston (16-392, 5TD) lead one of the school’s most dy­namic re­ceiv­ing corps in re­cent years.

Reed said the Pan­thers’ de­fense, while po­tent, could be sus­cep­ti­ble to big plays, es­pe­cially via the air.

“There’s also big stuff in there if you’re able to ex­e­cute. There’s op­por­tu­nity for you there if you can han­dle the pres­sure,” he said. “This year, so far, they’ve played more off cov­er­age, like three deep. They still play some man. I think they were a lit­tle more man last year. They’re go­ing to play both. We have to be able to throw the ball, have to be ef­fec­tive in the pass game.”

El Do­rado’s of­fen­sive line, which has been healthy with the same lineup since Week 2, could be the most im­por­tant unit on the field.

“I think the of­fen­sive line has to play re­ally well be­cause they’re go­ing to bring blitzes at you that you haven’t seen. They have to be alert and play well,” said Reed. “And then, our re­ceivers have to win one-onones. We’ve got to win some of those be­cause we’re go­ing to have to make some plays in the pass­ing game. I’d love to say we want to be bal­anced. You’ve got two 5-1 teams. Nei­ther one of them wants the other to run the ball. I would say this, if we rush for as many or more yards than they do, I’d feel re­ally good.”

The Wild­cats’ ground game will, for the sec­ond week in a row, be miss­ing se­nior Richard Ke­see, who is out with an in­jury. Reed said Jar­ius Curry, Keon­tae Larry and sopho­more Alex Hicks will fill the void.

“You’ll see more Alex than you have,” said Reed.

The coach called the kick­ing game, “pretty even.” Hicks and Lev­ingston will be the kick­off re­turn­ers in Ke­see’s ab­sence.

In­jury-wise, Rucks is set to re­turn but Ke­see will join full­back Gar­rett Tros­tle and de­fen­sive tackle Terry Hamp­ton as starters who will miss tonight’s game.

The El Do­rado-Ben­ton ri­valry dates back to 1926 and has heated up each year since. It’s just one of 10 reg­u­lar-sea­son games but Reed knows, tonight’s game will feel dif­fer­ent. Against the Pan­thers, it al­ways does.

“I think we’ll have a big crowd from both teams,” he said. “It’s the Game of the Week in 6A, two teams in the top five. I think it’s go­ing to be a heck of a game to watch.”

Kick­off is 7 p.m. at Memo­rial Sta­dium.

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