Another 40-plus, another win for Hornets makes for a happy Homecoming

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Landon Smith breaks a tackle after making one of his 10 receptions Friday night against Cabot. (Photo by Rick Nation)

The Bryant Hornets will play playing for a share of first place in the 7A-Central Conference next Friday against the undefeated North Little Rock Charging Wildcats. That’s the result of Bryant’s 48-20 Homecoming victory over the Cabot Panthers and North Little Rock’s 35-28 win at Fort Smith Northside.

Considering where the Hornets appeared to be after they struggled — particularly on offense — through their first four games, that’s kind of remarkable. More than a few fans figured it was developing into a rebuilding year with the arrival of veteran head coach Buck James and nearly an entirely new coaching staff. The Hornets were 2-2 and had averaged only about 10 points per game.

“I’ve never had a team that has improved so much this fast,” James stated Friday night after the team won its fourth straight, each with point production of more than 40 points. “We’ve got a great coaching staff.”

“It’s a great team win,” said defensive coordinator Darrell Burnett. “We get to go to North Little Rock with some momentum but I don’t like to see 20 points on the scoreboard on us. I wish it was zero on the scoreboard.”

Madre Dixon celebrates as he reaches the end zone after scooping up a Cabot fumble. (Photo by Rick Nation)

Madre Dixon celebrates as he reaches the end zone after scooping up a Cabot fumble. (Photo by Rick Nation)

Cabot started the season 4-0 before losing to Conway in week 5 and losing star quarterback Jarrod Barnes to injury. Barnes returned for the week 8 contest with Bryant but only played wide receiver. He wound up making seven receptions for 113 yards and two touchdowns but it was obvious his athletic prowess and playmaking ability at quarterback — with the ball in his hands on every snap — would make the Panthers a much better team.

“You’ve got to stop their running game and then when they put their quarterback (Barnes) out there at receiver, that’s another dimension,” said Burnett. “You’ve got to make a choice of whether you want to ‘man’ him and try to stop the run or do you want to put a safety over the top. If you do that, you’re leaving one guy out of the box.

“So we had to make some choices,” he added. “Sometimes it paid off in the passing game with the interceptions and a few times on long runs, two quick-hitters, that was because we had to put (another) guy on (Barnes).”

Both of Bryant’s cornerbacks Collin Welch and Andrew Hayes wound up with interceptions. Welch had two, in fact, even though they each were left to cover Barnes one-on-one much of the time.

A fourth turnover, a fumble by quarterback Cody Skinner on a sack by safety Caylin Allen, was scooped up by defensive end Madre Dixon who ran it in from 31 yards out to cap off the night.

Reece Coates looks for room to run. (Photo by Rick Nation)

Reece Coates looks for room to run. (Photo by Rick Nation)

Offensively, the Hornets weren’t as balanced as they’ve been recently. Cabot was determined to stop Bryant’s running game and loaded up the box. They limited the Hornets to 48 yards on the ground but, against their secondary, sophomore quarterback Ren Hefley and his corps of receivers had a field day.

Hefley, who came into the game with four touchdown passes for the season, threw four more against the Panthers. He was 20 of 29 for 302 yards after starting off 2 for 8. The four TD tosses were one short of the school record of five set by Jeramie Wooten in 2000. Hefley also ran for a score.

“Ren Hefley is one of the hardest-working kids that I’ve been around,” said offensive coordinator Robert Hooks. “There’s nothing that he won’t do to try to get better. We knew that this was coming.”

Landon Smith hauled in 10 of those completions for 124 yards and a touchdown. Reece Coates caught four for 109 yards and two scores. Seth Tucker had three receptions for 51 stripes.

“With the coverage that they play, we thought they were weak in the middle, that we could hit them across the middle and make big plays,” Hooks related. “Early, we got a couple of shots that did not land but the kids didn’t get discouraged. They came back and executed afterwards.

“We also hit the quick screens, the tunnel screen early, hoping that would slow them down from blitzing,” he mentioned. “They were short a man tonight. They had a starting safety that didn’t play. So we wanted to try and take advantage of that. I thought our kids did a good job of coming out, executing and sticking to the plan.”

Ren Hefley threw for 302 yards and four touchdowns. (Photo by Rick Nation)

Ren Hefley threw for 302 yards and four touchdowns. (Photo by Rick Nation)

The teams were trading licks until, in the final 1:06 of the first half, Bryant struck for two touchdowns to turn a tie game into a two-score lead, a tough situation for a Cabot team that likes to put together long, time-consuming drives with their power running game in the dead T. The Panthers were still dangerous in the passing game, however, with Barnes.

So when Bryant scored first in the second half to make it a three-score advantage, it really had the Panthers in a bind. They cut into the margin but Hornets’ senior Hayden Ray drilled a pair of field goals and Dixon returned the fumble for the final score.

Ray has now kicked 11 field goals this season. With two more, he’ll match his school-record 13 from last season. Todd Bryan also had 13 in 2002.

The teams traded punts in the first quarter until Welch made his first interception with 1:24 left in the period as Skinner tried to find Barnes. Welch returned it to the Cabot’s 43.

Aided by a personal foul penalty against Cabot, the Hornets drove for a touchdown. Hefley’s 10-yard scramble and a facemask penalty reached the 10. A play later, he fired a pass into the back of the end zone that tight end Luke Curtis wrested away from a Cabot defender for the touchdown.

The Panthers answered with a drive that included some big plays. Barnes caught a 28-yard pass but, moments later, the Hornets defense had forced a punt. The Panthers, needing 7 yards for a first down, faked the kick and Austin Morse skirted right end to get 9 and a new set of downs.

Luke Curtis beats Cabot's Cody Nabors for a touchdown pass. (Photo by Rick Nation)

Luke Curtis beats Cabot’s Cody Nabors for a touchdown pass. (Photo by Rick Nation)

A 21-yard burst by Adam Flores reached the 8. From there, it took the Panthers four tries before Flores got into the end zone from the 3.

With good field position after a 33-yard kickoff return by Randy Thomas, the Hornets took their turn. Hefley connected on three consecutive passes and, with a roughing the passer penalty tacked on along the way, it set up his 5-yard touchdown run.

In 11 plays, Cabot drove 72 yards for the tying score. Forced into a third-and-10 at the 15, Skinner lofted up a pass toward Barnes who leapt high and hauled it in with one hand as Hornet safety Cameron Vail arrived with a hit.

Hefley completed four of six passes on the next possession including a bubble screen that Smith turned into a 26-yard touchown with the help of key blocks from Tucker and guard Jace Houston.

With 1:06 left in the half, Ray added the extra point and it was 21-14.

In turn, the Panthers tried to get the ball to Barnes only to have Welch intercept again and return to the 24.

“Welch had not caught an interception all year in practice and he finally got him two,” Burnett noted. “I’m proud of him, proud of the other corner (Hayes). But we just can’t give up the big plays.”

Regarding Barnes, he said the coaching staff knew that Barnes would play and that it would be at wide receiver.

Nathan Mayes tracks down Cabot's Easton Seidl to end Friday night's game. (Photo by Rick Nation)

Nathan Mayes tracks down Cabot’s Easton Seidl to end Friday night’s game. (Photo by Rick Nation)

“I didn’t think they’d play him as much at wide receiver but, when he was making plays, he looked good,” said Burnett. “I saw him when we tackled him a few times, I was seeing how he was going to get up, whether he was going to limp. That dude’s a warrior.”

The Hornets cashed in on the resulting possession. With the offensive line picking up a Cabot blitz, Hefley found Coates behind the defense for a 24-yard touchdown pass with :17.7 showing on the clock. Ray made it 28-14.

Still struggling to run the ball effectively, the Hornets were forced to punt on their first series of the second half. Hefley was sacked for the first time on a third-and-3 snap.

Ray punted the Panthers back to their own 15. After grinding for a first down, they wound up punting back to the Hornets. From their own 33, Hefley and Coates combined again on a deep pass that turned into a 67-yard touchdown. With 6:10 left in the third quarter, the Hornets had opened up a three-score lead 35-14.

Cabot’s ensuing drive reached the Bryant 28 where, on a third-and-2, Skinner tossed to Barnes, who made a spin move to avoid a tackle and sprinted down the sideline for a touchdown.

But the Hornets blocked the extra point and the lead was 15 with 1:20 left in the quarter.

A pair of 14-yard completion from Hefley to Smith then a 24-yard strike to Tucker helped get Bryant to the Cabot 3. The Panthers made a stand, however, and Ray came on to drill a 22-yard field goal, making it a three-score lead again.

Buoyed by a 36-yard bolt by Braxton Burton, the Panthers reached the Bryant 34. Skinner, under pressure, tried to go deep to Barnes who had broken off the route. Hayes pulled it down at the 11 and sprinted up the sideline to the Cabot 47.

With a little grind-it-out offense of their own featuring Cameron Coleman and the o-line of tackles Joseph Wyllia and Zach Kemp, Houston and LaRae Williams at the guards and center Preston Kyzer, Bryant marched to the Cabot 13. But a holding penalty undermined their efforts. Three plays later, Ray added a 35-yard field goal to make it 41-20 with 2:08 left to play.

Cabot moved the ball from its 24 to the 46 where Skinner rolled back to pass only to be drilled by Allen, setting up Dixon’s scoop-and-score.

The game ended with some excitement. On the kickoff, the Panthers used a series of laterals to keep the return alive, finally getting it to defensive lineman Easton Seidl who found running room. It looked like he might score but Nathan Mayes tracked him down at the 3 to prevent it.

Great effort, right to the end of a lopsided win.

It was just the second loss of the season for the Panthers, now 6-2. Bryant improved to 6-2 but moved a game ahead of Cabot in the 7A-West standings at 4-1.

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