Photo: Richey Miller, clearchoicephoto.com
The Fayetteville Bulldogs’ regular season culminates at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Harmon Stadium with their biggest test of the season thus far when they play host to the Bentonville Tigers.
The game could not be bigger. The winner takes the 7A-West crown and receives the conference’s top seed and first-round bye in the Class 7A Playoffs.
“Our kids are excited,” Fayetteville head coach Daryl Patton said. “We’re playing for the conference championship. Not everybody gets a chance to play for that in the last game of the season. We’ve put in a lot of hard work this season to get this opportunity.”
The Bulldogs had their struggles throughout the season but managed to go undefeated until last Friday when they lost a 34-31 overtime decision to the Har-Ber Wildcats. The loss was physically and mentally draining for the Bulldogs, but Patton believes his squad has put that aside and are looking forward to the opportunity in front of them.
Had this week’s game stacked up to be just another regular-season contest, Patton may have been worried about his squad bouncing back from the loss to Har-Ber, but the importance of the Bentonville game has his team focused.
“There are a lot of teams, a lot of kids that would like to be here and in our situation and with our opportunity,” Patton said. “My kids are getting the chance to play in a big game to decide the conference championship and to get a No. 1 seed. It’s an exciting time. These are the kind of moments the kids work for. We’re going to go out there and give it everything we’ve got and see what happens.”
While Fayetteville has won the last two state championships and beaten Bentonville three out of four playoff matchups, Barry Lunney’s Tigers have dominated 7A/6A-West Conference play, winning at least a share of seven consecutive titles, including this year’s regardless of Friday’s outcome. The Tigers have won 32 consecutive conference games, not losing a league game for more than four years.
Patton said the current Tigers are a typical Bentonville squad.
“They are very, very good, just sound in what they do,” Patton said. “Their offensive line is very big and physical. It’s the best we’ve seen this year. They have three really good running backs that are tough to stop behind that line.”
Fayetteville (8-1, 5-1) vs. Bentonville (7-2, 6-0)
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8
Location: Harmon Stadium, Fayetteville
Those backs are Dylan Smith, Hekili Keliiliki, and Kahlil Gunn, who all rank in the top 16 rushers in the league and have combined to rush for 1,686 yards and 18 touchdowns on the season.
Sophomore quarterback Kasey Ford (6-5, 220) is a star in the making for Bentonville, but has been brought along slowly by Lunney. Ford has completed 72 of 125 passes for 1,245 yards and 13 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, but he leans on the Tigers’ excellent running game.
“Their sophomore quarterback is solid,” Patton said. “They don’t ask him to do a lot, but he has a big-time arm, and he is a big-time talent. He can through it a country mile. They have Jimmy Jackson at receiver, who is one of the best in the state.”
Jackson has 24 receptions for 499 yards and 7 touchdowns.
“They are very, very good,” Patton said. “They don’t turn it over much. They keep it sound and simple and do a great job of executing. You really have to credit Aaron Danenhauer, their offensive coordinator, for the job he and his kids are doing.”
The Tigers may be even more impressive on defense. Bentonville leads the conference in defense, allowing just 269 yards per game and in scoring defense, yielding just 14 points per game. Bentonville and Fayetteville lead the conference in turnover ratio with a +10 turnover ratio, with the Tigers forcing 21 turnovers thus far on the season.
“Their front guys as a unit work together really well, probably the best we’ve seen as a unit,” Patton said. “They have big, strong linebackers who really run to the football. They don’t give up much. They make you earn everything you get.
“In the secondary, their two cornerbacks are very good. They have aggressive safeties. Really, this looks like a typical Bentonville team that really knows how to win.”
Patton hopes a big Bulldog crowd will fill Harmon Stadium with purple on Friday.
“It would be awesome to have a big crowd,” Patton said. “The last time we played Bentonville here, they filled up their side and half of ours. Our crowd needs to step up big this week and be loud and vocal. It’s Bentonville-Fayetteville. It’s a huge rivalry game.”
7A/6A West Standings
Bentonville – 6-0, 7-2
Fayetteville – 5-1, 8-1
Har-Ber – 4-2, 6-3
Rogers – 3-3, 6-3
Heritage – 3-3, 5-4
Springdale – 3-3, 5-4
Siloam Springs – 0-6, 1-7-1
Van Buren – 0-6, 1-8
2013 FHS Football Schedule
Sept. 2 – Fayetteville 35, Warren 21 at Razorback Stadium
Sept. 13 – Fayetteville 34, Jeff City 24
Sept. 20 – Fayetteville 27, Muskogee 22 at Muskogee
Sept. 27 – Fayetteville 45, Van Buren 21 at Van Buren
Oct. 4 – Fayetteville 38, Springdale 14
Oct. 11 – Fayetteville 28, Heritage 27
Oct. 18 – Fayetteville 35, Rogers 14
Oct. 25 – Fayetteville 35, Siloam Springs 14
Nov. 1 – Har-Ber 34, Fayetteville 31, OT
Nov. 8 – Bentonville, 7:30 p.m.