Taking care of ‘unfinished’ business: Hornets reclaim Salt Bowl trophy with 10-2 victory over Panthers
EDITOR’S NOTE: Because the look back at each day in Bryant athletic history has been so favorably received during the time when there was no sports during the COVID-19 shutdown, BryantDaily.com will continueposting past stories of Bryant athletics either posted on BryantDaily.com (from 2009 to the present) or published in the Bryant Times (from 1998 to 2008).
By ROB PATRICK
LITTLE ROCK — There will be no controversy about the proper location for the Salt Bowl trophy this season. It’ll be in Bryant this year, all year after the Hornets rode their hard-hitting, tough-in-a-pinch defense to a 10-2 victory over the arch-rival Benton Panthers on Tuesday, Aug. 31, at War Memorial Stadium.
After last year’s 34-34 tie at Benton, the Hornets figured that the trophy, given to the winner of the annual game since 1999, would stay where it had been, at Bryant High, since they were the last team to actually win. Benton protested, asserting that, because the game was a tie, Bryant should have the trophy for six months and Benton should have it for six months.
And it got a little heated. In fact, there was a point along the way when Benton had decided to end the 30-year series in protest. That idea ended when folks from Conway and Cabot approached the two Saline County schools about a doubleheader featuring the two rivalries at War Memorial. Both schools agreed to the potentially lucrative proposal.
And it didn’t hurt that Benton got its way on the trophy, which found its way into the Panthers’ trophy case for the first time. And, according to Bryant folks, it wasn’t earned.
Going into Tuesday’s game, Bryant head coach Paul Calley declared that his team wanted to take care of some “unfinished business,” referring to the previous season’s dissatisfying result.
Just another chapter in the rocky tradition of the rivalry.
On Tuesday, Bryant scored all of the points in the game. In the first half, Todd Bryan kicked a 27-yard field goal to snap a scoreless tie. Then, just before halftime, moments after Bryant’s defense turned back another in a series of Benton threats, junior quarterback Anthony Mask and junior receiver Dustin Holland combined on a 46-yard touchdown pass, making it 10-0 at the half.
Benton’s points came early in the fourth quarter. Bryant was facing a third-and-19 at its own 8 when a high snap sailed over Mask’s head and into the end zone. Mask, making his first varsity start, made a heady play by kicking the ball through the back of the end zone for a safety avoiding the chance that Benton might recover the loose ball for a touchdown.
Otherwise, the Bryant defense pitched a shutout,
“I can’t say enough good things,” stated head coach Paul Calley. “I mean, they bent — Benton moved the ball — but we kept them out of the end zone.”
Calley had said, leading up to the game, that his team would rely on its veteran defense early in the season while the greener offense gained experience and began to jell.
The way the game ended was indicative. Making their third foray into the red zone in the second half (second in the fourth quarter), Benton was frantically trying to drive for a touchdown that, with a two-point conversion, would tie the game. Quarterback Josh Langley was responsible for most of the damage, primarily with his scrambling ability. His 14-yard run on a third-and-10 from the Bryant 45 had kept alive the drive which started at the Benton 40 with 1:07 left in the game. Another scramble for 13 yards got to the Bryant 8 with time running out. The clock was stopped with :03 showing to re-set the chains, giving Langley and the Panthers one shot at the end zone.
To most of those on hand — even, it seemed, to some of the Panthers players on the field — those last three seconds appeared to tick away before Benton snapped the ball for the last play. But the play unfolded. Fortunately, the only ones besides the officials that didn’t relax thinking that the game was over were the Bryant defenders. Langley, under pressure, threw into the end zone but the pass was a little off-target. Bryant cornerback Zach Kitchens knocked the ball down and the Hornets began their celebration.
Langley had to resort to scrambling much of the second half because, after he got off to a fast start, the Hornets coaches started mixing up the coverages in the secondary and the team’s pass-rushing tactics.
“We played a little softer and we didn’t rush as many people,” Calley said. “Our defensive linemen were tired (at the end). They’d been rushing the passer, flying all over the field all night long and, if you give (Langley) a crease, he makes one guy miss and he’s going to make some yardage.
“They dropped some passes too,” he noted. “But that just comes from our guys bringing the hat. We were physical. That’s one thing about our two safeties, anybody catches the ball in front of them, they better be looking over their shoulder because (Hunter) Nugent and (Bryan) Griffith are going to knock the stuffing out of them.”
Junior middle linebacker Zach Sanders led the Hornets with 10 tackles. Outside linebacker Travis Queck was in on nine stops. Kitchens intercepted a pass and Griffith picked off another in the end zone to cut off a Benton scoring threat.
Both offenses started the game well. Benton took the opening possession and drove from its 20 to the Bryant 17. The key play was a fourth-down pass from Langley to Sam Stout for 21 yards to the 17 that seemed to deflate the Hornets. On the next play, Langley kept to the 1 but a penalty brought the play back giving Bryant new life.
The Panthers eventually had to attempt a field goal but John Hill’s kick was wide right and the drive ended fruitless.
Bryant countered with a march from its own 20 to the Benton 9, with a 46-yard connection from Mask to Holland providing the impetus.
With Benton double-teaming Bryant senior Richie Wood (63 receptions for over 1000 yards and 13 touchdowns last year) most of the game, the Hornets were forced to look elsewhere and Holland filled void, hauling in eight passes for 140 yards.
But the Hornets’ drive stalled at the 9 and they too missed a field goal.
After forcing a Benton punt, however, the Hornets picked up where they left off. Mask, who hit 8 of his first 12 passes and finished 11 of 19 in the first half, connected with Holland on five completions during the drive which reached the Benton 10. Given a second shot, Bryan was good on a 27-yard field goal to give the Hornets a 3-0 lead.
The teams traded punts for most of the second quarter. Benton got the better of it, however. With 3:49 left in the half, the Panthers started a possession at the Bryant 33. Moments later, however, they faced a fourth-and-one at the 24 and decided to go for it. But the Hornets stopped tailback Aaron Calvin short of the marker.
Bryant took over. Running back Brandon Butler barreled for 10 yards and Mask passed to Jon Isbell for 5 yards to the 39. On the next play, Butler, a linebacker on defense, got the ball and was hit in the backfield by two or three Panther defenders. But somehow, he muscled his way free and bolted 15 yards to the 46.
“How many tackles did he break? Four?” marvelled Calley. “They had him in the backfield, two or three people had him wrapped up. But that’s what I told the coaches coming into the season, Brandon’s going to be the kind of guy that the arm-tackles aren’t going to bring him down. It’s going to take two or three people. And when they tackle him, he’s going to lean forward for extra yardage. That’s what we need.”
The Hornets came back with a pass play. Mask, just before being pounded by the Benton rush, got a pass away to Holland who was on a crossing route at about the 35. He never broke stride as he caught the ball, picked up a block from Wood and sailed down the sideline for the game’s only touchdown with :43 left in the half.
Bryan booted it to 10-0.
Special team woes
Early in the second half, Benton benefitted from a pair of breakdowns in the Bryant kicking game. The Hornets had great field position after Holland returned the kickoff to the Panther 48. Mask connected with Josh Rice for 20 yards to the 28 but a sack by Benton’s Bryson West thwarted the momentum. On a fourth-and-17 at the Benton 35, the Hornets chose to punt, hoping to pin the Panthers deep in their own end. But a high snap and a hard rush forced Bryan to make a run for it. He got a pass away but it was incomplete and Benton took over.
“We’ve worked hard on the kicking game but it didn’t go as well as I would’ve liked,” Calley asserted.
The Panthers picked up one first down but the drive ended when Tommy Byington and Jeremy Porterfield dropped Langley for a loss at the 43, forcing a punt.
Bryan Church’s low-liner of a kick looked like it had prime return written all over it. Kitchens, however, had to sprint to get to it and couldn’t make a clean catch on the run. The ball ricocheted away and Benton recovered at the Bryant 22.
Again, the pressure was on the Bryant defense and, again, it came through. Benton converted a third-and-11 from the 25 with a 13 yard run by Josh Brown on a reverse but another Benton penalty and Sanders’ second-down tackle of Johnny Vaughn for a loss put the Panthers in a third-and-13 situation at the 15.
The Panthers attempted a halfback pass but the Hornets sniffed it out as Griffith picked off Vaughn’s throw into the end zone and returned it out to the 25.
Bryant, however, only picked up three more first downs the entire game.
“In the second half, Benton was running so many crazy blitzes, it took us out of our offense,” Calley said. “They had us backed up most of the time. I felt like our backs were against the wall a lot.
“We did what we wanted to do in the first half,” he noted. “The second half, we’d do good things then we’d shoot ourselves in the foot. We dropped some balls, we didn’t hit open receivers at times. We were a lot tighter in the second half than the first. We had the lead but, in a lot of cases, your kids play not to lose instead of going ahead and playing to win. That’s something we’ll talk about in practice this week, ‘Don’t press in the second half, just go out there and play football. Just relax and have fun.’”
Late in the third quarter, Mask hit Wood and Isbell with passes that got the Hornets into Benton territory but an interception by West ended the drive.
In turn, Benton stalled at the Bryant 35. They punted the Hornets back to the 5. On the last play of the third period, Butler was dropped for a loss back to the 1. A play later, however, the Hornets got some breathing room thanks to a nice 16-yard run by Isbell.
But Mask was sacked by J.R. Helsham a play later, setting up the third-and-19 at the 8 that produced the bad snap and safety with 10:28 left in the game.
After a free kick, Benton drove from midfield to the Bryant 13. The Panthers’ momentum was dulled by Byington’s tackle of Langley for a loss of 3 on a first-down play from the 21. Benton managed to get to the 13 but, on fourth down, Langley’s hurried pass to Chris Vaughn was short and Bryant took over.
The Panthers forced another punt and, this time, started a drive from the Bryant 34. Queck stopped a swing pass with a nice open-field tackle then Josh Vocque knifed through from linebacker to spoil a screen with a tackle for a loss of three. A third-down pass fell incomplete then, on a fourth-down pass, Griffith lowered the boom on Josh Brown to knock the ball loose with 2:18 to go.
Again, however, the Hornets were unable to pick up a first down and was forced to punt with 1:16 to go. Bryan, however, was sidelined with leg cramps so Holland came in and, with the full rush coming from Benton, got a kick away that Brown returned to the 40, setting up the Panthers’ last, futile attack on the end zone.