BENTON — Defense has won Benton games all season long and a third quarter safety by junior Wyatt Upton proved to be the deciding factor in a 30-7 conference victory over Harrisburg at Tabor Field on Friday night.
The Bulldogs' offense lined up for a third and 16 play from their own two-yard line when quarterback Ben Gulley took the snap, rolled out left and got sacked by Upton for the two-point safety.
Upton’s ability to read Harrisburg’s offense gave his team a 16-7 lead at the 9:15 mark of the fourth quarter. Keegan Glover then found Reid Baumgarte for a 35-yard touchdown on Benton’s next possession before Jacob Kinsman punched in a one-yard touchdown with 15 seconds left to clinch the Rangers a playoff spot on Homecoming.
“I knew it was going to be a pass because they were third and long,” said Upton. “So, I read the pass and then I watched for a receiver to come my way — there wasn’t a receiver — and then the quarterback started rolling out when I lurked up to him and just hit him low to get that safety.”
Upton didn’t get an offensive touch in the first half when Benton’s offense outperformed Harrisburg’s 198-78, but the junior stepped up in the second half with 10 carries for 53 yards to fill in for an absent Landon Bolen.
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When Harrisburg found itself trailing 23-7 following Glover and Baumgarte’s second touchdown of the game, Gulley took a sack from Benton linebacker Jaden Ford on third and 10 to force a punt with 5:41 remaining to seal the victory.
Benton coach Justin Groves was excited to see his team improve to 6-0 on the season and 3-0 in the SIRR Ohio Conference.
“Tonight we played really well as a team and had some guys out with some bumps and bruises,” said Groves. “Total team effort — kids stepped up — kids like Zach Howell, Rylan Perkins, Jake Kinsman and Wyatt Upton coming in bumped up, but he played tough. Landon Bolen — those kids played great tonight and our offensive line was fantastic.”
Benton finished with 452 yards of total offense and it was a perfect blend of passes and runs. Kinsman led the way with 57 yards and a touchdown, but the Rangers run game had two backs surpass 50 yards and two more surpass 40.
In the passing game, it was Glover picking apart Harrisburg’s secondary outside of two uncharacteristic turnovers for the senior. The team had one turnover entering the week before Glover was intercepted by Vaundre McIntosh on a first and goal play from the Harrisburg 10 yard line in the third quarter. Glover then lost a snapped fumble on another first and goal opportunity in the fourth quarter.
Glover settled in to finish with 254 passing yards and two scores to Baumgarte after completing his first eight passes of the game. The senior duo connected on a 28-yard passing touchdown to open the game before Glover sprinted in a 28-yard rushing touchdown late in the first quarter to move ahead 14-0 after two successful Eli Hanson extra points.
Baumgarte had a big night reeling in eight receptions for 130 yards and two scores. Behind him was Howell, who had just one catch for 10 yards in the first half, but received an uptick in Glover targets during the second half to finish with six catches for 75 yards.
“It felt great to get out there and get that win to clinch a playoff spot and confirm it,” said Glover. “The defense kind of backed up in the second half to keep everything in front of them, which was smart by them because of the deep threats we have. Once we had two turnovers in a row inside the ten, we were kind of down, and then Wyatt gets that safety to lift everyone up.
“We get two points and then we get the ball back to come back. We’re never out of it, but we’re locked in.”
Harrisburg coach Matt Griffith saw his team’s momentum change in the third quarter following McIntosh’s interception on Glover. The Bulldogs took over trailing by two touchdowns and got a 42-yard touchdown pass from Gulley to Ross Rider on a wheel route that Rider managed to spin during the catch to evade Benton’s Kaleb Vaughn for the score.
Rider’s trip to the endzone snapped Benton’s defensive streak of not allowing a single point over its previous 20 quarters including shutout wins over Sparta, Pinckneyville, Herrin and West Frankfort.
A Tyler DePew extra point cut Harrisburg’s deficit to 14-7 with 4:18 remaining in the third quarter, but the Bulldogs couldn’t take advantage of turnovers and eight Benton penalties for 79 yards.
“The message from Monday was ‘if you want to call yourself a playoff team this is your shot’,” said Harrisburg’s first-year head coach Matt Griffith. “This was an opportunity for us to show we could compete against a playoff contender. At times we show glimpses of playing well, we’ve just got to keep moving forward."
Harrisburg will return home for a conference matchup against Murphysboro next week.
“When you get into the River-to-River you know exactly what you’re getting,” said Griffith. “It’s going to be tough teams week after week. We’re excited and ready to get back to work.”
Benton returns home next week for another conference match against Massac County.