Local teams return to gridiron tonight.
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.