There was no shortage of reasons for Booneville wanting/needing to win Friday night’s game at Bearcat Stadium.
To name a couple, Dardanelle had won the last three meetings and the teams will not see each other again until at least 2020, and the altogether likelihood that the winner would win the Conference 4A-4 title and secure a first round playoff bye.
Mission accomplished, 21-20.
As the score indicates, it was far from easy. The total offense difference was the same as the score with the Bearcats (7-1, 5-0 Conference 4A-4) gaining 278 yards to 277 for Dardanelle (6-2, 4-1).
In fact, Dardanelle made the opening possession of the game look easy, scoring in just seven plays with quarterback Elyas Carter escaping from the grasp of a Bearcat in the backfield and scoring from the 13. Temo Martinez added the point after to make it 7-0 with 8:59 left in the first quarter.
The lead lasted 14 seconds because Ethan Dobbs returned the kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. It was the only kickoff Martinez did not put in, or through, the end zone for the Sand Lizards.
Noah Reyes had his first tackle for a loss on the ensuing possession — he would have three more — and Martinez, kicking from a block from 66 yards out kicked the ball to the Bearcat 15. Martinez would use six field goal misses as punts in the game.
The first Bearcat offensive play was negated by a holding call and Dardanelle eventually forced a Tommy Harper punt and took over at the Bearcat 43 — one of three drives that started in Bearcat territory in the first half.
Dardanelle scored after all of them, starting with a 26-yard Martinez field goal that made it 10-7.
Brandon Ulmer, who sat out last week because of a knee injury suffered against Dover and was not expected to play as recently as Thursday afternoon but played the entire game, engineered an 80-yard drive in 11 plays to give the Bearcats their first lead.
Ulmer hit Ethan Dobbs for a 27-yard touchdown to make it 14-10 with 7:19 left in the first half. Ulmer had also hit Jacob Gregory for 26 yards on the drive and would throw for 138 yards in the game on 5-of-7 passing.
Reyes had a sack and Marcus Nichols assisted Cam Brasher on another on Dardanelle’s next possession but the Bearcats went three-and-out on their next possession and Harper punted the ball only to the Bearcat 46.
After three Blake Chambers carries, Carter went 17 yards for a touchdown to make it 17-14 with 2:55 left in the half.
When three Bearcat plays resulted in minus 2 yards and a short punt the Sand Lizards got the ball back at the Bearcat 40 with 1:05 left in the half.
Completions of 12, 13, 6 and 8 yards got the Lizards to the Bearcat 5 and Martinez hit a 22-yard field goal as time expired in the half to make it 20-14.
The Bearcats managed a pair of first downs to start the second half but Harper ultimately punted to the Lizard 20-yard line.
That served as a reversal of the trend of Dardanelle having the field position advantage.
The Sand Lizards were forced to punt kick again thanks to a Carson Ray/Nichols sack and although they forced another Harper punt, their next starting position was their own 19 with 1:26 left in the third quarter.
On the final play of the third quarter Martinez kicked it to the Bearcat 38.
On the first play of the final quarter Ulmer threw to a wide open Mike Hesson who went 68 yards for a touchdown to tie it. Austin Dobbs added his third point after and the Bearcats had the lead back at 21-20 with 11:50 to play.
On the ensuing possession the Sand Lizards converted fourth and third downs before ultimately kicking the ball away with 7:27 to go.
Starting from their 14 the Bearcats got an 11-yard carry from Andrew Robertson, who gained a team high 48 yards on 11 attempts. Robertson also converted a third-and-5 with 5:36 to go and Ulmer hit Trent Woodridge for 18 on a third-and-5 with 4:25 left.
A holding penalty set the Bearcats back but Harper pinned the Sand Lizards at their 13 with 1:53 to go.
A Grant Rodatz sack, Jeremy Elliott tackle and and incomplete pass to Jordan Metcalf brought up fourth down. Carter looked to have picked up a first down but a hit by Wooldridge knocked the ball away and three kneel downs by Ulmer wrapped it up for the Bearcats.
The Bearcats will have senior night Friday when West Fork visits. The Tigers are 0-8 on the season.