LITTLE ROCK — For the 14th time in the 16-year history of the Salt Bowl, the Bryant Hornets took home the big trophy Friday night in the 2015 edition. Scoring 30 unanswered points over the final three quarters to overcome a 13-7 deficit, the Hornets took care of that “#UnfinishedBusiness” that carried over from last year’s 14-14 tie. Before a record crowd of 34,086 at War Memorial Stadium, Bryant left the rival Benton Panthers behind in a 37-13 victory.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our kids,” stated Hornets head coach Paul Calley, standing in the fieldhouse at Bryant High School sporting a “#DoItForRay” t-shirt. “They had a rough week, a rollercoaster of emotions.”
“Ray” is the sophomore who played on the team who was found dead earlier in the week, a stunner.
On Monday, Calley had said his team needed to get out to a fast start but, prior to the game on Friday he was talking about them just surviving the first quarter in light of all that had happened.
“And that’s kind of the way it was the first half,” he acknowledged after the game. “I knew it would take us a little while.”
Six different Hornets wound up scoring, three (Sevante Turner, DeAmonte Terry and Cameron Coleman) on touchdown runs, two on touchdown passes (Aaron Orender and Jaret Jacobs from quarterback Gunnar Burks) and one on 4 of 5 extra points and a 30-yard field goal (Hayden Ray).
The game included 20 penalties that were marked off including 11 for 110 yards against Benton. There were five turnovers but four of those were forced by the Hornets’ defense. Bryant also blocked a punt.
But the defense struggled early. Benton had some big plays in the passing game including a 78-yard touchdown pass to Grayson Morrow that put the Panthers on top 13-7 with 5:21 left in the first quarter.
The Hornets turned it around in the second half, however.
“I think it started in the second quarter,” stated Bryant defensive coordinator Steve Griffith. “We talked to the guys on the sideline and said, ‘Let’s calm down.’ We were playing our guys up front a little soft the first quarter. We felt like they really picked up the pace in the second quarter. That set the tone for the second half.”
The Panthers had scored first on a four-play 61-yard drive capped off by Beck’s 5-yard TD toss to Colton Nix. Matt Warrick’s extra point bounced off the right upright leaving it 6-0.
On the very next play from scrimmage, Burks threw his first pass of the season, a deep ball that settled into the arms of Orender, who ran it in for a 65-yard touchdown. Ray added the PAT to put the Hornets ahead briefly.
Three plays later, Benton regained the lead on the long pass.
Things started the chance for the Hornets’ defense when, on Benton’s next possession, a drive from their own 40 reached the Bryant 22. The Panthers inserted cornerback Preston Stone at quarterback and tried to run an option only to have Bryant’s Marvin Moody knife in to drop him for a 9-yard loss.
Moody was in on 12 tackles in the game including a sack and a fumble recovery. Middle linebacker Devon Howard was in on 15 stops. Dixon had nine tackles including a sack and safety Jaelyn Jones made eight tackles to go with an interception.
Though the Panthers, aided by a pass interference call, were able to get back to the Bryant 9, defensive end Madre Dixon spoiled the first-and-goal play, forcing a fumble and recovering it at the 13.
A bad snap and a pair of penalties frustrated the Panthers on their next series. Punter Roy Blaylock went back to kick it away only to have the Hornets’ Peyton Robertson break through and block it.
Two plays later, however, the Hornets ran a halfback pass and though they had two receivers out with one Benton defensive back, Simeon Watson, trying to cover them, the pass was short and Watson was able to make the interception.
Moody stopped a swing pass from Beck to Drew Dyer for a loss and, on the next play, Beck and running back Brandon Hunter missed connections. Moody recovered the fumble.
That set up Ray’s 30-yard field goal to cut the lead to 13-10.
“It was our kicker’s first varsity game,” Calley noted. “He did well.”
With Beck completing passes for 43 yards to convert a third down then 20 more to convert another third down, the Panthers answered with a drive to the Bryant 20.
But Benton started going backwards at that point. A holding penalty negated a pass completion inside the 10. A fumbled snap didn’t cost them possession but it did lose 8 yards.
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty moved them back ever more. A procedure penalty followed then Robertson, a back-up defensive tackle, knifed through to sack Beck at the Bryant 28.
With time running out in the half, Benton faced a third-and-63. The end of the half saved further trouble.
“What little they were getting in the running game was inside so we put Cameron (Murray) and Mario (Waits) inside, and used (Hayden) Knowles and Dixon on the ends,” Griffith explained. “And we had our subs working in and out, trying to keep them fresh.
“I’m very proud of the defensive line because we ended up playing about 10 guys up there,” he noted. “We had some fresh guys in there playing in the second half. They’re obviously not quite as big as our frontline guys but they’re in there playing hard. They practice hard every day. We get them out there and we tell them we expect them to be ready to play.
“You know, I think sometimes they’re not sure if they’re going to be called upon,” the coach added. “They were definitely called upon. With the heat and humidity tonight, it was a big factor.
“On the big plays that they had, you have to tip your hat to them but we were out of position in our alignment,” Griffith mentoned. “If you don’t have your alignment, you’re not giving yourself a chance. So we got those corrected, kept calm and the kids came out and played extremely hard and forced some turnovers. We practice that, forcing turnovers, the stripped balls. And it’s good to see it come through in the ballgame.”
Regarding the offensive adjustments, Calley said, “We spread the field a little bit more. Our game plan early was to unbalance them (use an unbalanced line, an effective part of the Hornets’ game play at Bentonville last fall in the second round of the playoffs).
“But they gave us a little bit different look on defense, which kind of nullified our first-half game plan,” Calley continued. “We made adjustments at halftime to spread the field and try to create running lanes for our backs.”
The Hornets used a counter play effectively, starting the flow one way, pulling linemen against the flow and handing off to a back heading that way as well.
“We worked it a lot this week,” Calley said. “We didn’t run it much in the first half but, the way they shifted their defense, gave us numbers on the backside and we blocked it well. We feel like, if we get a hat on a hat and run our feet, look for work, if the linemen can create a little crease, our back’s going to make it right.”
Despite a blocking penalty that negated a pass completion, the Hornets opened the third quarter with a 64-yard drive for a go-ahead touchdown. The key plays were runs of 26 and 22 yards by Turner off that counter action. Burks added a 14-yard keeper that converted a key third-down.
Bryant drove to the 7 but lost yards on second down there. On third down on the 9, Burks started a roll to the left, pulled up and fired down the middle to a wide-open Jacobs, who had snuck out from his tight end position for the score.
Ray kicked it to 17-13.
“We talked about how we had to set the tone in the second half on our first possession,” Calley related. “It was going to go how our offense went. I felt like if we could establish ourselves on the first series of the second half and get a little momentum — high school football is a game of momentum — if we could re-capture the momentum, we would have a good second half. And we did.
“We settled in defensively. We forced turnovers. The penalties in the kicking game were big,” he added.
The defense forced a punt and Bryant got the ball back at its own 34. On the first play, that counter produced running room for Turner, who streaked 56 yards for another TD and Ray made it 24-13.
Beck completed a pair of passes on the subsequent drive from his 19 but, at the 42, Knowles separated the ball from Hunter and Devon Alpe claimed it for Bryant.
A 42-yard drive for another score took much of the mystery out of the final outcome. The drive was aided by a personal foul penalty. Turner caught a 10-yard pass from Burks to get inside the 10 then Terry eventually scored the touchdown from the 1.
Benton made a bid at an answering score, driving from its own 39 to the Bryant 20. But, on a first-down play there, sophomore safety Cameron Vail dropped Hunter for a loss. Kameron Guillory and Murray combined to bring down Beck for a loss then Moody blitzed and came untouched to sack the Benton quarterback.
Under pressure on fourth down, Beck overthrew his intended receiver.
The Panthers threatened one final time with a drive to the Bryant 16 but that’s when Jones came up with his interception.
With back-up quarterback Beaux Bonvillain in, the Hornets drove for another score. Coleman covered the last 53 yards.