BENTON — The Pine Bluff Zebras learned a valuable lesson Friday night: Never underestimate your opponent.
The lesson nearly became a painful one, but Pine Bluff recovered from a rough first half and went on to beat Benton, 59-42, at Panther Stadium.
“I think our kids looked at the Benton-El Dorado score instead of respecting them,” Zebras head coach Bobby Bolding said referring to last week’s 35-0 loss by the Panthers. “It’s like I said a couple of weeks ago, these kids need to get hit with a bat to understand.
“What I tell them means nothing. They have to learn the hard way that you have to respect every opponent.”
Benton (5-5, 3-4 in 7A/6A-South) senior quarterback Tarek Beaugard and sophomore wide receiver Colten Nix took advantage of the overconfident Pine Bluff defense in the opening half.
The duo hooked up six times in the game’s first 24 minutes for 125 yards. The Beaugard-to-Nix combo scored three touchdowns in a 3-minute span to stake the Panthers to a 28-14 lead with 9 minutes, 39 seconds left in the first half.
In the second half, though, Nix didn’t have a single catch and Beaugard only went 5-for-11 for 38 yards, while also losing two fumbles.
Beaugard’s turnovers early in the fourth quarter helped the Zebras outscore the Panthers 17-0 in the final period.
Pine Bluff (6-3-1, 5-2) sophomore defensive end John Tate returned Beaugard’s first fumble 10 yards for a touchdown to give the Zebras the lead for good at 49-42.
Beaugard turned it over on Benton’s ensuing drive, but returned the favor as Pine Bluff sophomore quarterback Ladarius Skelton’s pass was tipped and intercepted in the end zone.
A long run by senior running back Shaun Carey moved the Panthers to midfield, but a fumble on a pitch from Beaugard to Carey was recovered by Pine Bluff sophomore defensive back Braylen Jones.
This time Pine Bluff cashed in with a 22-yard field goal by senior kicker Austin McGehee to give the Zebras a two-score lead at 52-42.
After forcing a three-and-out, Pine Bluff sealed the win with a 20-yard touchdown run by senior Trevor Hunt — his second of the game following an 11-yarder in the second quarter.
Hunt was one of four Zebras to score rushing touchdowns in the first half as Pine Bluff racked up 320 yards on the ground in the opening two quarters.
Sophomore Romar Reades started things off with a 58-yard touchdown on Pine Bluff’s third play of the game.
Benton answered with an 83-yard TD run by Carey.
Pine Bluff retook the lead on the first of three TD runs by junior Kentorious White.
Just two plays after the third of Beaugard’s scoring passes to Nix, Hunt registered his first touchdown to pull Pine Bluff within 8-21.
The back-and-forth first half continued as Carey’s second scoring run of the night was answered by Skelton as Benton took a 35-28 lead into the locker room.
Asked if his team was lucky to only trail by seven at the half, Bolding said, “Yes, we were just pitiful on defense.”
Pine Bluff only had the ball twice in the third quarter, but both drives ended with White in the end zone.
On the opening drive of the second half, White scored a 36-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-2 play to bring the teams level at 42-42.
“It was huge,” Bolding said of the drive. “The opening drives of the first and second half are always important.
“If you are on defense, you want to stop them. If you are on offense, you want to go down and score.”
But just as they had done the whole game, Benton had an answer.
This time, Beaugard used his legs to give the Panthers the lead on an 8-yard run, but it would be the last points the potent Benton offense would score all night.
A 23-yard TD run by White with 33 seconds left in the third quarter knotted the score at 42-42 and set Pine Bluff up for its dominant fourth quarter.
“It was big to go right back down and answer,” Bolding said of the game-tying drive.
With Lake Hamilton’s 42-14 win over Little Rock Fair, Pine Bluff’s playoff seed will be decided by the winner of tonight’s El Dorado-Bryant game.
A Bryant win earns Pine Bluff a No. 2 seed, while an El Dorado victory means the Zebras would receive a No. 3 seed, according to Hootens.com.