It seemed unfathomable.
Not that Corri Milliner would score a touchdown on a throw from Gabe Benton, he’d done that all season and already posted three receiving scores in Friday’s game against Smiths Station.
It was just unfathomable that he could be scoring now. After five games filled with frustration for a winless Benjamin Russell team, after the Wildcats blew a 33-15 second half lead and had to punt the ball back to the Panthers trailing by four with less than six minutes left, it seemed unfathomable that the junior wide receiver could be striding into the endzone for a potential 80-yard game-winning score.
But he was.
“I’m thinking, ‘Don’t let anybody catch me,’” Milliner said. “I had to score and win the game. After I scored, I knew the game was over. I knew the defense had my back. I just knew we won.”
Behind a defense that made all the stops it had to and a passing attack that collected 288 yards off the arm of sophomore quarterback Gabe Benton and four touchdowns from Milliner’s efforts, Benjamin Russell defeated Smiths Station in a 40-37 thrill ride to take home its first win under head coach Aubrey Blackwell.
“It’s very emotional. It’s been really hard,” Blackwell said. “It’s been a tough transition, and these kids have fought so hard. We’ve asked these kids to do some things that they haven’t done before in their life, and they found a way to be resilient and fight and get better. I’ve been saying it, this is for them. They earned it.”
Safety Ensley Goggins and linebacker Caiden Hyde were two of the biggest standouts from the night. SaVon Spradley recovered a second-half fumble to help matters.
That defense still had to make one final stand after Milliner’s touchdown, which occurred with two minutes to play in the game.
A Zy Owens sack forced the Panthers into second-and-long, which became fourth-and-3 following a chunk running play and an incompletion.
Smiths Station quarterback Jackson Greer swung the football out to running back Iverson Jones, who had space to run in the flat. Benjamin Russell linebacker Caiden Hyde grabbed a piece of his jersey from behind, and somehow found the strength to halt the powerful back’s momentum long enough for a horde of his teammates to arrive for a no-gain stop.
“That’s a sophomore out there making plays on a Friday night,” Blackwell said. “But he’s tough and resilient.”
All that remained was for the Wildcats to kneel the ball down and count down the seconds to victory.
“We knew we had to come together at that moment right there to win this game,” Goggins said. “We were just trying to show Wildcat Pride, put on some class and come together as a team at that moment.”
Benjamin Russell came out with its usual downfield passing attack on the offensive side.
Benton found Milliner on the Wildcats’ first drive and the wideout slipped past a few defenders for a 35-yard catch-and-run.
Shortly after it was La’Bronski McKinney slipping behind the Panthers defense for a 37-yard touchdown to open the scoring with a 6-0 Benjamin Russell lead.
The next drive Benton connected with Foster on third-and-5, a ball lasered over the middle to pick up a key first down.
He capped that drive with a 13-yard scoring toss to Milliner, giving Benjamin Russell a 14-8 first quarter lead.
The duo connected for a seven-yard score on third-and-goal a few drives later, and again on the Wildcats’ first drive of the third-quarter on a slant route that went 28 yards to the house to give Benjamin Russell its 33-15 lead.
“He just knows when I’m open,” Milliner said. “He just knows when to throw the ball to me, so I just catch it.”
It was Benton’s legs that carried the day to give the Wildcats an 18-point first half lead, though.
With just two minutes remaining in the first half, the Wildcats faced a fourth-and-8 at the Smiths Statin 12-yard-line. With its kicking game in shambles all night, they elected to go for it.
Benton sat in the pocket but no one was open. So, he tucked and ran straight ahead.
He slipped all the way into the end zone to extend Benjamin Russell’s lead to 26-8, which entered half at 26-15.
One quarter was all it took for Benjamin Russell’s fortunes to reverse, from eight minutes left in the third to eight minutes left in the fourth.
In that 12-minute span the Wildcats went from a 33-15 lead to a 37-33 deficit on 22 unanswered Smiths Station points. The Panthers scored on a 70-yard punt return from Brandon Green to cut the lead to 33-30 then took a 37-33 edge on a 36-yard strike up the right sideline to wide receiver Cianan Williams.
In that 12-minute span the passing attack that had eviscerated the Panthers all night evaporated, and three first-down holding penalties with an additional first-down false start killing any possible momentum that could arise.
Two minutes after the 12-minute span, a fourth-and-43 and the 12-yard-line summed up perfectly how the second half went for the Wildcats. Everything had fallen apart. Its exhausted defense returned to the field.
“The whole time in the tent, it was, ‘Guys, we’ve got this. Let’s just give Gabe a couple more seconds, we can get it,’” Blackwell said.
After surrendering one long running play, somehow Benjamin Russell strung together three good defensive plays to force a field goal attempt. It missed wide left, setting up the harrowing finish from Milliner, Hyde and company.
“As a defense, the last two weeks, we’ve been saying, ‘We’ve gotta double our running,’” Blackwell said. “We’ve gotta be in better shape. And the kids did that, without a second's hesitation. The kids sprinted and worked hard these last couple weeks to get in better physical condition. Tonight it paid off for them.”
Goggins set the tone early.
Smiths Station drove into the red zone on its opening drive, even with the safety making an opposing receiver pay with a big hit on a first-down jet sweep run.
The Panthers found themselves on fourth-and-4 after the deep drive, and Greer laid the ball softly into the hands of a receiver coming across the middle.
Unfortunately for him, Goggins was there to lay another monstrous hit to break up the pass. Smiths Station turned the ball over on downs.
“I was just like, ‘Dang man, I gotta knock him down,’” Goggins said. “Gotta make a big hit, make the crowd get up, get momentum.”
Goggins would collect two tackles for loss and a bunch more total tackles before it was over.
“We didn’t have Ensley our first three games, and he has been the energizer bunny for us,” Blackwell said. “He’s really come in and given us some juice on defense, especially with the momentum he brings with how he makes contact. He’s a very physical football player.”
The Wildcats receive a bye next week before returning home to face Pelham Oct. 7.