FORT SMITH — The Bryant Hornets were maintaining a lead but, for the longest time, they just couldn’t shake the Fort Smith Southside Mavericks Friday night at Jim Rowland Stadium. Every time the Hornets would extend the advantage, the Mavericks would counter and cut into it, staying within striking distance, a touchdown or less.
At the end of the third, Bryant had bumped the margin to 33-19 but as the fourth quarter unfolded, the Mavericks were on the march again. A 33-yard pass from Graves Schmidley to tight end Spencer Wehunt had them first-and-goal at the 10. A pass interference penalty moved it to the 5.
But the Bryant defense stepped up, as they had in clutch situations repeatedly. On a third-and-goal, linebacker Marvin Moody spoiled a reverse, dragging down Southside’s Taye Gatewood for a loss to the 6. On fourth down, the Hornets got some pressure and Schmidley over-threw his intended target.
Bryant took over with 8:44 left. Cameron Coleman powered out to the 19 but, moments later, the Hornets’ Hayden Ray was on to punt.
It appeared that Southside would have a chance to trim the margin again with good field position but the Mavericks’ Dylan Wyatt muffed the punt and Bryant’s Collin Welch pounced on the loose ball at the Mavs’ 44.
The Hornets ate clock as they drove to the 25. Ray drilled a 42-yard field goal to put the game out of reach, 36-19. A late touchdown run by Kris King set the final score as Bryant stunned Southside, 43-19.
It was the Hornets’ third consecutive win, all in conference play, and the third time in as many games that they eclipsed the 40-point mark. Now 5-2 overall, they are 3-1 in 7A-Central Conference play, tied with Cabot behind North Little Rock and Fort Smith Northside in the standings. Cabot comes to Bryant for Homecoming next Friday.
It’s not the same Hornets team that opened the season, struggling to score over the first four games.
“They’ve come a million miles,” declared Bryant coach Buck James of his team. “We could barely even run a play. I didn’t know if we were as good as a junior high team when we first started (in the spring).
“It says a lot about the kids,” he noted. “It says a lot about the parents because they go home and have to say, ‘Hang in there and do what the coach says to do,’ and this, that and the other thing.
“We had some stray and we had some run off but the nucleus stayed there,” he continued. “They fought through it even though they didn’t like it. I told them that tough times would bring them on for good things to happen down the road. Sometimes you’ve got to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I’ve said that from day one. And this is why you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable, because you’ve got to come up to a school like this, tradition-rich, and have a chance to win. And that’s what they did.”
The Hornets eclipsed 400 yards of offense, nearly split evenly between running and passing, possessing the ball enough to pile up 22 first downs.
Senior Reece Coates caught three passes for 62 yards including an eye-popping, juggling grab for a touchdown. He also ran a ‘wildcat’ offense that often including added blocking from a trio of defensive standouts, Bryce Thomas, Hayden Knowles and Marvin Moody. Mostly in close quarters, Coates rushed for just 38 yards but scored twice.
In addition, sophomore Ren Hefley and senior Beaux Bonvillain combined to go 19 of 25 passing for 216 yards. Hefley tossed two TD passes. Along with the one to Coates, he also flipped a swing pass to Cameron Coleman who turned it into a 17-yard touchdown in which he broke what seemed to be at least half a dozen tackles.
That TD and Coates’ reception for a score will, undoubtedly, be part of the highlight video after the season.
“To help us in the passing game, we saw that, with play action, those ‘backers would come up, were biting and they gave us opportunities in the pass game,” said offensive coordinator Robert Hooks. “We’d play-action to throw and when we wanted to run in the second half, we started to show pass and run the draw. We hit them with the draw a couple of times.
“I tell you, our kids executed,” he emphasized. “We talked about catching the 50-50 balls. Reece Coates tonight, caught a 50-50 ball. He caught two of them. Landon Smith caught a 50-50 ball. Seth Tucker had a great game tonight. C.J. Wallace came off the bench and was big for us. Jordan Witcher — we had a number of guys that played, not just the starters, that came out and executed.
“We still have to clean up between plays from the whistle to the snap but I’m excited about the direction that we’re moving in,” Hooks said.
The development of the offensive line continued even though o-line coach Shane Clancy had to mix and match a little along the way, choosing from a growing number of linemen that have seen playing time this season.
“When they went in there, they got the job done,” he said. “They communicated. The technique’s getting better and good things are happening. At the beginning of the game, we weren’t using good technique and we didn’t have a lot of success. We changed a few people out. They played their technique, worked hard, tried to stay on track and got things done.”
“I thought that our speed and our agility and our tenacity could overcome their size advantage,” James related. “I thought teams that could run, teams that could move fast and didn’t stay in one spot could really do a good job on them on the defensive side of the ball. I thought our defense could slow them down and stop them. And we did until we lost some concentration and had some things break down in the kicking game. But I thought, going in, we could hold them under 17 points.
“Offensively, I thought we could get on a roll,” he added. “I didn’t think we could run the ball as well as we did against them but, I knew if we threw the ball and were successful, that it would open up the run game. We felt like we could score points.
“We told our kids all week, in the big scheme of things, all they are is bigger than us,” the coach concluded. “They’re not faster. They weren’t any stronger. They have a lot of pre-season expectations. We didn’t. But our kids went out there and played like guys that really wanted to be a good football team, wanted to go out there and prove themselves.”
Southside, now 2-5 overall and 1-3 in the league, had been picked by the coaches of the conference to finish second before the season.
“We respect them,” Hooks said. “And our kids worked hard. I think the preparation and just the will — I thought our will tonight was better. We weren’t going to be denied. I could tell from the bus ride that we were going to have a good game. They were locked in and focused and ready to go.”
And it showed from the start. Southside got nothing on three plays in the opening series. Bryant got good field position at its own 41 following a punt. Right off the bat, Hefley fired a pass deep down the left sideline that Coates leapt up and caught in a duel with two defenders for a 34-yard gain.
The drive bogged down but Hayden Ray came on to drill a 37-yard field goal.
Again, the Mavericks went three-and-out. Madre Dixon made a stop for no gain and Moody led a charge that popped Gatewood for a loss.
Bryant drove to the Southside 39 and went for it on fourth down only to have a pass fall incomplete.
With momentum, the Mavs took over in good field position. They managed a first down but the Bryant wall, which held them to just 24 yards on the ground in the first half, forced a punt.
A short kick set up Bryant’s first touchdown drive, which took 11 plays to go 64 yards. The march started with Hefley finding Tucker on a curl route. Tucker turned it from a short game into a 16-yard pickup with his running after the catch.
Bryant was 7 of 14 on third down plays including a pair the ensuing drive. Hefley scrambled for 16 yards to convert the first one then Coates, in at quarterback, sliced for 4 yards and a first-and-goal. Unfortunately, a personal foul penalty after the play created a first-and-goal at the 16.
But that didn’t sidetrack them. On a second down, Coleman hauled in Hefley’s swing pass and left seven Mavericks in his wake on the way to the end zone.
A 66-yard kickoff return by Dylan Reeder set up Southside’s first points. Ray was the last man and just tried to get in the way. He wound up making the touchdown-saving tackle, which proved huge when the Mavs had to settle for the field goal.
Bryant answered with an 80-yard touchdown drive. Along the way, they were aided by two major penalties. It actually looked like it would be a three-and-out when a third-down play lost yardage but a personal foul penalty produced the needed yards for a first down and then some.
A play later, Bonvillain’s pass was picked off by Prince Rhoden and returned for an apparent touchdown. But a pass interference penalty negated the play.
Still, Bryant faced a third-and-3 at the 46 and Bonvillain converted with a clutch 11-yard completion to Tucker. Jeremiah Long contributed a 15-yard run to help set up Coates’ 1-yard keeper for the TD. Ray booted it to 17-3.
The Mavericks got the ball back with 2:14 left in the half. They too benefited from a major penalty against the Hornets. They still had a chance at a stop by forcing a third-and-3 at the 31. But Schmidley threw to David Matthews for 21 yards and, on the next play, found Gatewood for a touchdown from 10 yards out.
And they made it a 6-point game at the half when, out of the old swinging gate formation, Gatewood passed to H-back Ryan Horn to make it 17-11.
Bryant got the ball to start the second half but was forced to punt. Southside gained good field position at the Bryant 41. Three plays later, however, they faced a fourth-and-1 at the 32. And when running back Kobe Rogers got the call to pick up the first down, he was stopped cold by Welch and Moody.
A reverse to Randy Thomas for 15 yards started a 67-yard scoring drive. A third-down conversion along the way was supplied by Coates who broke a 13-yard run. He would eventually score from the 1 then add a run for a two-point conversion that had Bryant up 25-11.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Hornets ran a splendid surprise on-side kick that Ray fielded himself but one of the Hornets was offside on the play, negating it.
Briefly finding some room to run, Gatewood broke a 55-yard run and, on the next play, Rogers scored from 16 yards out to make it 25-19.
On the next series, Coleman, on that draw play, rampaged 40 yards. Penalties, however, sabotaged the possession but Ray punted the Mavericks back to their own 13.
The defense forced a punt in return with Gutierrez booting it away from his own end zone.
Taking up offensively at the Southside 43, the Hornets quickly scored, though they had to overcome a bad play. Smith caught a 15-yard pass from Hefley then Coleman tore his way for 18 yards to the 10.
On the next play, Hefley was under duress and tried to get rid of the ball with a swing pass towards Tucker. It was off target and turned out to be a lateral. Tucker made a heady play by realizing it and getting on the loose ball before the Mavs could get there.
On the next play, Hefley lofted a pass into the right back corner of the end zone. Coates was closely guarded but somehow came down with a juggling catch, staying inbounds for a touchdown. Coates ran in the conversion to make it 33-19.
Though it may not be that big a deal to the current players and coaches, longtime Hornets fans will appreciate that the win marked the first time a Bryant team has ever defeated a team from Fort Smith, either Southside or Northside. Bryant and Northside have played six times and Friday’s game was the sixth meeting with Southside.