GREENBRIER — Greenbrier left the door to the 5A-West throneroom ajar Friday night, and Greenwood smashed right through it.
The Bulldogs (9-0, 6-0) intercepted Greenbrier quarterback Neal Burcham four times, forced six turnovers, scored on every possession except one the second half and powered to an efficient 59-35 victory over the previously unbeaten Panthers in the showdown for the 5A-West Conference championship.
The Bulldogs, who amassed 593 yards of offense, answered every Panther thrust and made them pay for every mistake in the game before a packed house at John Hawks Memorial Field at Don Jones Stadium.
"You can’t make mistakes against them," Greenbrier coach Randy Tribble said. "They have great speed and they play as a team. We had to play real close to a perfect game to beat them and we didn’t do that."
Panther quarterback Neal Burcham passed for 393 yards, but Greenwood quarterback Hayden Smith had the most efficient game, hitting 25 of 31 passes for 383 yards.
The tone was set early after Burcham hit Reid Cone in stride for an 80-yard touchdown on the Panthers’ first possession.
The Bulldogs then drove to the Greenbrier 1, where the Panther defense held on downs.
Backed deep in Greenbrier territory, Burcham passed over the middle and lineup Drew Morgan leaped high to snare the ball and returned an interception 10 yards to tie the score. Another interception by Morgan set Greenwood up for a 4-yard touchdown run by Smith. Burcham tied the score with a 28-yard touchdown pass to Seth Peters with 8:52 left in the first half.
The Bulldogs seized control for good by nicely using their speed offense to score two touchdowns in the final 2:23 of the half. Smith connected with Morgan on a 37-yard touchdown on a crossing pattern. Then, Burcham had the ball slip out of his hands while attempting a pass and Greenwood recovered on its 47. Smith passed 12 yards to Cole McAlstar to put the Bulldogs up 28-14 with 32 seconds in the half.
"Every time they had any momentum, we struck back and struck back quickly all night long in all phases of the game," Greenwood coach Rick Jones said. "The key for us on defense was to make sure to keep the ball in front of us and we did a good job of that. We kept grinding away."
Greenbrier drew within 28-21 on the first possession of the second half on a 10-yard pass from Burhcam to Scott Cavin.
The Bulldogs retaliated in five plays with Smith craftily guiding them downfield to a 10-yard pass to Morgan, who made a leaping catch in the corner of the end zone. On the Bulldogs’ next possession, they drove 47 yards for a touchdown and took advantage of a busted coverage when Smith connected with a wide-open McAlstar to put Greenwood up 42-21 with 3:27 left in the third quarter.
Burcham capped an 80-yard touchdown drive with a 4-yard pass to Peters on fourth down to draw the Panthers within 42-28 with 10:44 left.
Greenbrier’s onside kick failed to go 10 yards and the Bulldogs scored in four plays, all on keepers by Smith against a worn-down defense.
Aided by two pass interference penalties, the Panthers again drove 80 yards to a 22-yard touchdown pass by Burcham to Peters with 7:11 left.
Smith, who rushed for 89 yards, carried most of the load on a time-consuming drive from the Greenwood 25 to the Greenbrier 9, where Adam McFain booted a 25-yard field goal to make it 52-35 with 4:50 left.
Taylor Hasley intercepted Burcham and that set up Justin Sunde’s 58-yard scamper that set the final margin at 3:14.
"Neal has made great passes under pressure, but they (the Bulldogs) are so fast that he tried to force some plays that cost us," Tribble said. "But that is a great team. We couldn’t stop their offense. They are probably better than I expected."
The Panthers close the regular season with the Judge’s Cup game Thursday at Vilonia.