File photo by Rick Nation
Sitting down this week to reflect on the 2014 football season for his Bryant Hornets, head coach Paul Calley was asked if the Bentonville Tigers’ 42-10 win over the highly-regarded North Little Rock Charging Wildcats put the Hornets’ 17-7 loss at Bentonville the previous week in a new light.
“You’d like to think it did but, when I talked to (Bentonville) Coach (Barry) Lunney before the game, he was worried about them being out of sync,” the coach mentioned. “They’d been off a week. And I know what he means just from us having a bye week last year. It is hard to take off a week and come back and play a good ballgame.”
The 2013 Hornets, champions of the 7A/6A-South Conference, had a bye and, in a second round game against North Little Rock, which had played the week before, didn’t play as well as they had the previous week in a dramatic 21-17 win over El Dorado. North Little Rock won 28-7.
All that being said, however, Calley continued, regarding the team’s effort against Bentonville, which they led 7-3 much of the game and as late as eight minutes left to play: “I thought our kids had a lot to do with (Bentonville’s struggles). I thought we played extremely hard. We played a lot smarter than we’ve played, in a tough environment. I mean, Bentonville’s a tough place to play. We went in there and executed our game plan.”
Calley and offensive coordinator Lance Parker devised an offensive plan in which they used an unbalanced line, sometimes with only a guard on one side of center Zach McConnell with all of the other linemen, the tight end and the H back all on the other side. And they’d even run to that weak side at times to try to outflank the Tigers and give them something to deal with that they didn’t see very often if ever. And it worked. The Hornets moved the ball well and actually finished with more yardage than the Tigers.
“We felt like, they’re so well-coached, any conventional offensive set we show them, they’re going to be able to defend,” he related. “In 2010, we took a really good team up there offensively and the only thing we did to move the ball was trick plays. In our regular offense, we didn’t get a first down. Coach Parker did a good job implementing the offensive game plan and trying to keep them off balance, keep them out of their comfort zone and keep them guessing as to what we were going to do.”
The Tigers took a 3-0 lead on their first possession of the game. It was set up by a diving interception then a 35-yard pass completion on the very next snap, putting Bentonville just 22 yards away from a touchdown.
“The interception is something we hadn’t done all year — we haven’t turned the ball over much,” Calley said, noting that the Hornets had a plus-15 turnover rate coming into the game. “We didn’t start a couple of our seniors in the secondary because they were late to the bus leaving to go to Bentonville. That probably had a lot to do with that 35-yard pass.
“But then we held them after that and played a really, really good ballgame, a sound ballgame,” he continued. “We played field-position football. We tried to control what we could control. I thought we did offensively, especially in the second quarter when we got down there and scored, missed a field goal also.”
Bryant led 7-3 at the half and held Bentonville to just one first down on the first series of the second.
“In the third quarter, I wanted to take the wind because we had momentum,” Calley recounted. “I wanted to use that to our advantage and try to get another score on the board in the third quarter. We weren’t able to do that but we hung in there. We didn’t allow them to score either.
“We probably didn’t take as many chances as we thought we were going to have to,” he mentioned. “We thought we’d have to gamble a little bit more. We were never put in that situation where we had to gamble.”
As the third quarter concluded, the Hornets had punted Bentonville back to its own 20. As the third turned into the fourth, they forced a three-and-out.
“Field position is the big thing in a game like that,” he noted. “The wind was a factor.”
It just so happened that, with the change of the quarters, the Tigers got the wind just in time to punt. The result was a 75-yard punt.
“That punt flipped the field on us and gave them a field-position advantage,” acknowledged Calley, whose team got the ball at its own 7 as a result.
Against the win, the Hornets had to punt out of that hole. Bentonville regained possession at its own 44 and, in three plays, scored its first touchdown with 7:48 left to play, taking a 10-7 lead.
“Still, we had our chances,” Calley continued.
Indeed the Hornets responded with a drive from their own 20 to the Bentonville 40. After losing a yard, senior quarterback Brandan Warner scrambled for 3 yards on a third-and-4, coming up just short of a first down (and not receiving the best of marks).
“We have a fourth-and-inches at their 38-yard line — we’re only 10 yards out of field goal range,” Calley recalled. “We could’ve tied it up, I thought. We ran a play we’ve run 100 times and didn’t block it correctly. They got somebody in the backfield.”
Junior running back Savonte Turner was stopped for no gain with 4:12 left to play. Bentonville took over on downs. Though the Hornets’ defense force the Tigers to punt it back with 3:14 to go, a third-down pass that was inches from being a completion for a first down became a tipped interception with 2:52 left.
The Tigers drove to a cosmetic touchdown in the final seconds to set the ultimate tally.
“Overall, I was pleased with everything but the outcome of the game,” Calley stated. “We didn’t beat ourselves. I thought we showed a lot of composure, a lot of maturity and had a chance to win the football game. We just didn’t get it done.
“We had a great year,” he said. “I wish we could go back and play the Conway game again. That was a game that I feel like got away from us. I don’t feel like they were that much better than us. We just let them get a lead and it took us out of our game. We hadn’t been down a whole lot all year. Then to come out in a game of that magnitude and get behind and try to claw your way back, we just didn’t play well offensively.”
The 24-10 loss to the Wampus Cats on the final week of the regular season was Bryant’s first of the campaign. The 7A/6A-Central Conference championship was on the line and a first-round bye for the playoffs. The Hornets defeated Springdale Har-Ber in dramatic fashion, 28-27, in the first round setting up the trip to Bentonville. They finished 9-2-1.
“It’s going to be hard to replace a (senior) group that talented,” Calley said. “Probably, overall, the most talented senior class that we’ve had since I’ve been here. The speed that they had, the strength that they had is going to be hard to replace.
“I felt like if we were going to make a run this was the year to make the run,” he added. “Bentonville’s knocked us out of the playoffs — this is the third time. The previous two times they went on to win a State championship (2008 and 2010). I feel like we were right there with them and had a team that was good enough, barring any mistakes to contend for a State title. And we really didn’t have a big-play threat all year. We had to grind everything out. And we did that.”
Indeed, to a lot of people nine wins didn’t seem likely after the Salt Bowl in which the Hornets and Benton Panthers tied, 14-14, particularly in light of the fact that the Hornets lost a real big-play threat, Brushawn Hunter, to an injury that would sideline him the rest of the season. Hunter was one player that could score from anywhere on the field. As the team’s leading rusher, pass receiver, kick returner and scorer in 2013, the Hornets came into the season with a lot of its offense built around him.
Without him, however, they did a remarkable job of closing ranks, refocusing and, ultimately, winning week after week, eight weeks in a row. And, in the end, they may have come closer than anyone in the playoffs to knocking off the team favored to win the State championship this Friday.