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Smith leads Bennett into Class AA final as Tigers take down OP

Bennett’s proud of the fact it has four running backs who are big-play threats, but the Tigers are far from a one-dimensional football team.

They can go vertical when the situation calls for it. They did that often Friday night and their reward will be another shot at a Section VI championship.

The Tigers earned their spot in the Class AA final at New Era Field by throttling Orchard Park, 51-27, at All High Stadium behind a five-touchdown performance from quarterback Aaron Smith.

Smith, a junior, tossed three touchdown passes in the second half to help Bennett (7-2) pull away from a Quakers crew that rallied from an early deficit to take the lead, but couldn’t comeback a second time. That’s because when the Tigers needed to make a big play to repel OP (6-3), they did just that during a 25-6 second half.

Thrice Smith had a hand in delivering a blow that enabled Bennett to beat the Quakers for the first time in five meetings.

“Having a chance to play for the title is big,” said Justin Campbell, who returned an interception 44 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter to swing things the Tigers’ way. “I’m happy as ever to get there.”

Bennett returns to action next Friday when it faces two-time defending champion Lancaster for the crown. The Legends advanced by rallying past Williamsville North, 21-20, in the other Class AA semifinal Friday. It’s the Tigers’ fourth championship game appearance in five seasons.

Bennett reached sectional finals in Class B (2014), Class C (2015) and Class A (2016) in its previous appearances at the home of the Buffalo Bills.

“These kids did a magnificent job,” Tigers coach Steve McDuffie said. “We had a balanced attack. Orchard Park is a great program. … It took us five times to beat them but this time is very sweet. … Once again I’m so proud of the kids.”

The Tigers seized the game, after heading into halftime clinging to a five-point lead, on Campbell’s fourth pick-six of the season just 1:05 into the third quarter.

“I had sat in my zone read it,” Campbell said. “I heard the call they sent, sugar, so I just took my opportunity, took the pick and took it to the house.”

Then Bennett took to the air for its next three scores. It started with Smith hooking up on an 82-yard touchdown, a perfectly thrown pass into the wind, to a streaking Devotie Pompey to make it 38-21.

OP pulled within 11 on Archie Bartolotti’s third touchdown catch of the game – this one a 62-yarder to make it an 11-point game with more than three minutes left in the third. That’s a lot of football to be played, considering OP erased as 12-point deficit earlier in the game in under a minute.

The Tigers, who dropped a 23-22 decision to the Quakers back in Week Six, weren’t to be denied in securing their second signature win over one of the area’s all-time programs (remember, they beat Lancaster earlier this season).

Smith and Pompey hooked up on a pair of 22-yard TD strikes in the fourth quarter to seal the deal. Smith, who missed the loss to OP with an injury, finished 7 for 12 for 234 yards. He also rushed for touchdowns of 3 and 1 yard during a wild first half.

“We knew we had to pass the ball to win this game,” Smith said. “The line did an excellent job blocking. I’m proud of them."

Bennett threatened to turn this one into a blowout early, forcing a pair of three-and-outs by the Quakers while scoring on its first two possessions. Smith turned potential disaster into six points as he recovered a fumbled snap in the end zone on a fourth-and-3 play. The Tigers increased their lead on their next drive as 26-yard completion from Smith to Semaj Clemons opened up the run game as D’Jae Perry scored from the 18 with 3:40 left in the first quarter.

OP had the lead by the end of the period as it found success moving the ball down the field by throwing it. Jack Sharp hooked up with Bartolotti on 3-yard TD pass with 40.9 second left. After recovering an onside kick, Sharp and Bartolotti connected on a 46-yard TD with 20.8 left as the Quakers led 14-12.

Bennett took the lead for good with 10:02 left in the second quarter as Austin Grimes scored on an 11-yard run with Pompey running in the conversion to make it 20-14. Smith made it 26-14 scoring on a 1-yard run with eight minutes later. OP pulled within five on 12-yard TD catch by Mike Pataky with 13 seconds left in the second quarter.

Second half was all Tigers, which prevented Orchard Park from returning to its second home -- New Era Field -- for the first time since 2016 but first time under head coach Craig Dana.

“There are some things to hang our hats on,” said Dana after OP bounced back from last year’s 4-5 campaign. “Definitely improved from where we were at last year but our goal in Orchard Park is to get to the Sectional championship and win there so we have some work to do.”

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