With a 43-6 win over Benton at Jordan Stadium on Thursday, Pine Bluff won its first conference championship since 2008 as the Zebras got through the 7A/6A-South with a perfect 7-0 record.
Pine Bluff coach Bobby Bolding said the conference title can be attributed to this year’s 29 seniors, who were seventh graders when Bolding became the head coach of the Zebras.
“Good group of seniors and they have been the foundation of our program,” he said. “We built things around them and we have had some really good senior classes before. … This group is awful special to us, so glad we can get this win for them.”
Pine Bluff already had the No. 1 seed in the playoffs all locked up. With a conference championship in hand, the Zebras are one of the teams in the 6A title talk.
But while senior quarterback Rickey Clements is happy with a conference title, he knows his team has a long way to go yet.
“Feels good but we are not done yet. It’s not over,” he said. “It gives us a lot of confidence but we can’t take advantage of it and have to just keep working hard.”
The game was never really in doubt. Pine Bluff (9-1, 7-0 in 7A/6A-South) went into halftime with a 40-0 lead and two of the scores were from its special teams. The Zebras had 257 yards and 185 through the air by halftime and forced Benton to turn the ball over three times.
With Benton (3-7, 2-5) geared up to stop senior Walter Ashley, who was held to 33 yards and a touchdown on nine carries, Clements went on to complete 11 of his 13 passes for 185 yards and three touchdowns in just a half of action.
“I thought Rickey really played well and he was right on cue with his reads,” Bolding said. “He went right to the person he was supposed to go to.”
Clements said the offensive line gave him enough time to make such good reads.
“The whole line, they gave me a lot of time,” he said. “Coach been on me about my reads all week and it carried over.”
Benton started the game with the ball, but Pine Bluff forced a punt and got its first score at the 6:18 mark on Ashley’s 3-yard touchdown run.
Later in the quarter, the Zebras defense recovered a fumble and on the first play, Clements launched a deep ball to Devonta Jenkins, who came down with the 31-yard touchdown reception.
On Pine Bluff’s next possession, Clements connected twice with Tyrone Payne for 53 total yards that set up Clements 9-yard touchdown pass to Jenkins and a 20-0 lead with 10:32 left in the second quarter.
Jenkins had some problems earlier in the season with some dropped passes, but has cleaned that up.
“Coach had me doing drills in looking the ball in, so I just carried it over to the game,” Jenkins said. “I am just happy for the win.”
Benton was able to drive into Pine Bluff territory and lined up for a 40-yard field goal. But Raymond Bynum got through and blocked the kick, which is his seventh of the year, and the ball rolled to the 14-yard line when Rakeem Leverett kicked it.
Devarious Rice then picked up the ball and returned it to the 18-yard line before he bounced out from the right hashmarks to the left sideline and scored on an 86-yard touchdown.
“That was a great job by Bynum. … The rule is, when you block it and it goes past the line of scrimmage and you get away,” Bolding said. “But Taggart kicked it or something, so Rice picked it up and he gets away and next thing you know he is running down the sideline. We will take the touchdown anyway we can get it.”
Pine Bluff scored again with 59 seconds left before halftime when Clements threw deep for Paris Mack, who made the catch at the 2-yard line and got into the end zone for a 41-yard score and a 33-0 lead.
“Paris is playing well and has been practicing well for the last three weeks,” Bolding said.
The Zebras defense forced another Benton punt, and Ashley fielded it at the Pine Bluff 44-yard line and found the right sideline. He broke four tackles along the sideline and found the end zone for a 56-yard punt return and a 40-0 halftime lead.
Bolding said Ashley needed that touchdown.
“He needed to pop one and take it to the house and I don’t think our blocking was that good, but it gave Walter confidence,” he said. “Gave our punt return guys confidence and they will do a better job of blocking.”
Benton finally got on the board in the second half. Pine Bluff muffed the opening kickoff and the Panthers took over at the 18-yard line. Wallace Foote got the handoff and he scored on an 18-yard run.
Foote came into the game with 1,281 yards and 16 touchdowns this year. He was averaging 7.8 yards per carry, but he was held to 56 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.
“We were worried about him and he is a great running back,” Bolding said. “We did a good job on him.”
Pine Bluff’s final score came on Austin McGehee’s 25-yard field goal with 8:46 left in the game.