Given the choice, Platte County hopes to avoid another lackluster first half.
Pirates senior quarterback Tanner Clarkson tossed four second half touchdowns in an eventual 50-21 runaway Friday, Oct. 20 at Pirate Stadium in a Class 4 District 8 opener. Seventh-seeded Benton went into the second half tied, looking to spring a massive upset of the No. 2 seed.
No. 6-ranked Platte County went into halftime tied 14-14 for a second straight week, the last ending in a devastating overtime loss to rival Kearney. The Pirates weren’t challenged after halftime vs. Benton but now must prepare for a sixth straight district matchup with Smithville (9-1).
Platte County beat the Warriors in the semis in 2015 and 2016.
“We have to come out fast. That’s the biggest issue we’ve had all year, especially (against Benton),” Platte County senior wide receiver Devin Richardson said. “It was a wake-up call, especially for the seniors. We have to play the games, or it’s going to be all over.”
Platte County (8-2) scored on three of its four drives in the second half, all on long touchdown passes.
Taking the opening kickoff, Gavin Hardman — a senior running back — sparked the go-ahead touchdown drive, running four times for 27 yards. Clarkson’s 8-yard scramble on third-and-seven kept the Pirates moving, and after a penalty, he completed his first touchdown in unorthodox fashion.
In triple coverage, Platte County’s 6-foot-4 senior wide receiver John Watts and three Benton defenders deflected the ball at the goal line, and Pirates junior Brice Bertram grabbed the pass and leaned in for a 37-yard touchdown. He now has just seven catches on the season but two touchdown grabs in two games — the first being on a basic out and up in the first half against Kearney.
“I saw John running behind the defenders, and I was trying to get it to him over them,” said Clarkson, who finished 14-for-23 for 183 yards. “I got hit as I was throwing it, and it just went straight up into the air on me. Brice made a good play for me, and I thanked him for that.”
Staked to its first lead, Platte County started to roll.
Michael Smith — a senior defensive end — dragged down elusive Benton quarterback Cooper Burton for a sack at the Cardinals’ 1 on a third down to end the next drive. He now has 12½ on the season and at least one in each of the past seven games.
The stop led to a short field, and Clarkson hit Watts for a 38-yard touchdown on the next play to make it 28-14.
Platte County couldn’t take advantage of senior JP Post’s interception on the next drive, but after a punt, Benton again faced a fourth down inside its own 20. A bad snap on the punt attempt led Burton to knock the ball out of the end zone for a safety rather than allow the Pirates a chance to recover the loose ball for a touchdown.
A long return for Richardson off the free kick plus a personal foul, put Platte County at Benton’s 13. Three plays later, Watts caught a 16-yard touchdown pass, and despite a failed two-point conversion attempt, the Pirates suddenly led 36-14.
Watts finished with three catches for a team-high 65 yards.
Benton gambled on fourth down and came up short on each of its next two drives.
Platte County junior running back Adel Freitek added both runs on a two-play, 22-yard drive, and Clarkson completed his final touchdown to sophomore Cam Scheib for the Pirates’ final two touchdowns. Both were 2-yard plays.
“They went for it on fourth downs where you probably don’t go for it in other situations because their whole season is riding on it,” Platte County coach Bill Utz said. “What I liked to see about the whole thing was that we took advantage of it right away and put points back on the board.”
From there, the focus shifted to another meeting with Smithville, which overcame some early struggles to beat Savannah 42-17 in its district opener.
Last season, Platte County ran away for a 39-14 win in the district semifinal matchup with the Warriors. The winner advances to play either top-seeded Kearney (8-2) or fourth-seeded Lafayette (8-2), which survived a late two-point try to beat Excelsior Springs 35-34 last week.
While the potential rematch with Kearney looms, Platte County must continue its recent success against one rival to have a shot to end its most frustrating skid a week later. Kearney has won each of the past three district titles — the last two with victories against Platte County.
“We just focus on Smithville because they are a good team,” Utz said. “They’re just as capable of being (in the district title game) as we are — by all means. We’re not thinking Kearney at all right now. Smithville’s too good.”
Platte County didn’t look a sure bet to survive the first week of the postseason after its slow start against Benton.
Clarkson took four sacks in the first half — two on the opening drive after the Pirates forced an early punt. Parker Lacina punted to pin the Cardinals back at their own 3, but they responded with an 11-play, 92-yard touchdown drive capped with a 2-yard run for Burton on fourth and 1.
Dylan Gilbert, a junior, grabbed an interception early in the second quarter to give Platte County a needed spark, and after completions to Richardson (19 yards) and Gilbert (11 and 3 yards), the Pirates moved into the red zone for the first time. Hardman, who finished with 82 yards on 12 carries, finished the 53-yard touchdown drive with runs of 7 and 4 yards on consecutive plays to tie it 7-7.
“I assumed that once we would get rolling that way, good things would happen,” Utz said. “Ultimately, it took the half to get us in a situation where we were in good enough position to make our move.”
Platte County forced a punt, but three plays later, Benton forced a fumble while sacking Clarkson for the fourth time.
Benton took over at the 17, and three plays later, Burton completed a short pass in the flat that Simuel Bingham turned into a 25-yard touchdown play. The Cardinals were up 14-7 with just 3 minutes, 2 seconds left in the half.
On the ensuing kickoff, Richardson raced 86 yards for a touchdown to tie the score back at 14-14.
“There’s no way I could’ve run that back without the blocking I had. There were some huge holes, and really, I just had to make the kicker miss,” said Richardson, a senior who entered the season with one career catch who now has a team-leading 12 total touchdowns. “We always find a way to bounce back, pull together as one. Hopefully, we can find the solution to the (slow starts).”
A last-minute drive in the second quarter ended with no points for Platte County, and Benton outgained the Pirates in the first half. The Cardinals ended up with more than 300 yards of offense but just over 100 came after halftime.
Platte County junior defensive back Nolan Saale led the defense with 13 tackles, while senior linebacker Dakota Schmidt added nine. Smith and Schmidt had a sack each.