BENTONVILLE — Goliath staggered but, in the end, did not fall.
The Bryant Hornets were less than nine minutes from stunning the defending Class 7A State champion Bentonville Tigers on Friday night. The Hornets had taken a 7-3 lead just before halftime and the defense, which had stymied the Tigers over the first 24 minutes, continued to do so through the third quarter as the score held.
Bentonville, however, scored twice in the final eight minutes including a cosmetic touchdown with 10 seconds left to escape with a 17-7 win, ending the Hornets’ season, denying them a 10th win and a first-ever trip to the State semifinals.
The Hornets were so close — even after Bentonville took a 10-7 lead on a 21-yard touchdown pass from Kasey Ford to running back Dylan Smith with 7:48 left in the game.
Bryant’s answering drive began with a 21-yard strike from Brandan Warner to Evan Lee. With key runs by Warner and Kylon Boyle, the Hornets, using a shift into an unbalanced line that had proved successful most of the night, drove to the Bentonville 38 where they faced a fourth-and-1.
After a timeout with 4:17 left to set up a play that they hoped would keep the drive alive, Bentonville stuffed a run by Savonte Turner to the strong side, taking over on downs with 4:12 to go.
As it had most of the night, the Bryant defense made Bentonville strain for yardage. The Tigers went three-and-out, nearly turning the ball over on third down when Ford juggled the snap and just got back on the loose ball before Bryant’s Ben Bruick got there.
Bentonville punted the Hornets back to their own 27 with 3:14 to play. A pair of incomplete passes had Bryant in desperate straits but it appeared that Warner and Austin Kelly would hook up for a complete pass down the middle and a new set of downs. But the ball ticked off Kelly’s fingers and into the arms of Cody Scroggins who returned it to the Bryant 22.
After penalties were marked off against both teams, Bentonville was as the Bryant 20 with 2:52 to go.
The Hornets’ defense again made a bid at a stand as time was running out. The Tigers faced a fourth-and-2 at the Hornets’ 12 and instead of going for the field goal, handed the ball to Smith who slashed into the end zone for the clinching score with just :10.4 on the clock.
Warner, who phenomenally had not thrown an interception the entire season, had two passes picked off against Bentonville. Along with the tipped pass in the late stages, the Tigers’ Winston Robson made a diving interception that ended Bryant’s game-opening drive, a play after Warner and Kelly had connected to convert a third down.
On Bentonville’s first snap, Ford found tight end Austin Bugos on a drag route across the middle, which broke for 35 yards to the Bryant 22.
But the Hornets’ defense held on three downs including a tackle of Smith for a loss by Mario Waits and Connor Chapdelaine.
The Tigers had to settle for Chase Hunter’s 40-yard field goal.
They would not score again until midway through the fourth quarter. Bentonville threatened, however, on the next possession, driving to the Bryant 23 where, after a timeout, they decided to go for it on fourth-and-8 only to have Ford run into Bryant’s Cameron Murray resulting in a loss of 2 yards.
The Hornets took over and put together a 15-play march, highlighted by Warner’s 7-yard pass to Lee on a fake punt. It got just enough for the first down.
Warner followed with a 19-yard aerial to Kelly. They eventually reached the Tigers’ 16 where the drive stalled. Denker came on to try a 32-yard field goal but it sailed wide right, keeping it a 3-0 game.
Bryant forced Bentonville to punt twice. The first time, they rushed the kicker and ran into him, resulted in a 5-yard penalty that extended the drive. Two plays later, however, Ford tried to throw a swing pass to Smith. The Hornets defenders stayed home and when Smith tried to reverse fields, they pushed him back and eventually Chapdelaine tracked him down for a 15-yard loss.
Hunter’s punt into the wind gave the Hornets a short field. In 11 plays, Bryant covered the 57 yards with Boyle plunging into the end zone to cap it off with 1:10 left in the half. Denker kicked the extra point and it was 7-3.
The drive was keyed by a 4-yard run from DeAmonte Terry that converted a fourth-and-1 at the Tigers’ 33. A play later, the Hornets caught the Tigers by surprise, sneaking in Murray at tight end. With the wide receivers spread out, Warner found Murray over the middle and the big guy got the first down at the 12.
Turner carried on three straight plays to pick up a first down at the 1. Boyle scored from there with 1:10 left in the half as the Bentonville crowd was stunned into silence and the Tigers started to show signs of frustration.
The teams traded punts in the third quarter. On the Tigers’ opening possession, Bryant’s Drew Tipton made a touchdown-saving play as Ford threw deep off play-action. Ford ran such a good fake that everyone was sucked in. But his throw deep down the middle was underthrown a bit. Sprinting from the far side of the field, Tipton got there in time to knock the ball way at the last second.
The Hornets had the wind in the quarter and Denker drilled a 56-yard punt that rolled into the end zone before anybody could get there inside the 10 to down it.
In turn, the Hornets forced another three-and-out. But the Tigers now had the wind and Hunter dropped back to kick inside the Bentonville 10. With the line of scrimmage at the 19, Hunter got his punt up into the wind and it turned the field over. The ball was downed at the 7.
The Hornets nudged out to the 15 where, on third-and-2, Warner was stopped for no gain bringing Denker out once again to punt. Despite the wind blowing against him, the punt covered a respectable 41 yards.
Bentonville set up offensively with 8:42 left, showing some desperation. But, aided by an uncalled holding penalty at the corner, Smith turned it and dashed 37 yards to the 19.
On the next snap, the Hornets dropped him for a 2-yard loss. That’s when the Tigers ran a play with Smith sneaking out of the backfield on a wheel route. He got lost in the Bryant secondary and hauled in Ford’s throw for the 21-yard touchdown with 7:48 left.
The Hornets played their guts out. In fact, they out-played the heavily-favored Tigers for most of the game only to have the champions make the plays when they had to, to extract the win.
It was Bentonville’s seventh win in a row after an 0-4 start to the season. The Tigers will play North Little Rock in one semifinal next Friday. West entries Fayetteville and Fort Smith Southside will meet in the other semifinal.
The Hornets’ remarkable campaign concludes. They finish 9-2-1.
TIGERS 17, HORNETS 7
Score by quarters
BRYANT 0 7 0 0 — 7
Bentonville 3 0 0 14 — 17
BENTONVILLE — Hunter 40 field goal, 9:18
BRYANT — Boyle 1 run (Denker kick), 1:10
BENTONVILLE — Smith 21 pass from Ford (Hunter kick), 7:48
BENTONVILLE — Smith 12 run (Hunter kick), 0:10.4
First downs 13 11
Rushes-yds 45-140 31-119
Passing 6-14-2 8-16-0
Passing yds 70 82
Punts-avg. 4-41.0 4-45.8
Fumbles-lost 0-0 1-0
Penalties-yds 4-35 3-25
Rushing: BRYANT, Warner 20-53, Boyle 13-39, Turner 8-33, Terry 4-15; BENTONVILLE, Smith 22-85, Keliiliki 3-17 , Scroggins 1-5, Gunn 1-2, Ford 2-(-4).
Passing (C-A-I-Y): BRYANT, Warner 6-14-2-70; BENTONVILLE, Ford 8-16-0-82.
Receiving: BRYANT, Lee 3-23, Kelly 2-30, Murray 1-17; BENTONVILLE, Scroggins 4-35, Smith 3-12, Bugos 1-35.