For more photos of this event by Kevin Nagle, go here
You know when a coach starts a sentence, “With all due respect to . . .” or “Not to take anything away from . . .” and he refers to his team’s opponent, he’s about to let you know that the result of the game had more to do with his team losing than the other team beating them.
After Tuesday’s preseason benefit scrimmage against the Pulaski Academy Bruins at Bryant Stadium, all of the Bryant Hornets’ coaches were using one of those phrases in one form or another.
Sure, it wasn’t as bad as last year when the Bruins scored 80 points or so against a Bryant team that, head coach Buck James admitted, just wasn’t ready to face that kind of competition. And he took responsibility.
Of course, all was forgotten when the Hornets surged through the season and made it all the way to the 7A semifinals.
It’s an expectations game. Much more is expected, from the jump, out of the 2017 team.
In three quarters, the three-time defending Class 5A champion Bruins out-scored the Bryant varsity 42-24. With the junior varsity teams on the field in the fourth quarter, the two teams played even 6-6 with the Hornets just falling short of scoring at the end.
James asserted all along that he wanted his team to be challenged in the scrimmage by a top-notch team, which could expose the flaws that needed to be shored up. And they got what they expected from PA.
But the flaws that showed up weren’t exactly what the coaching staff apparently expected.
“We didn’t play well,” James stated. “And we didn’t play hard the first half.”
The Bruins jumped out to a 21-3 lead and held a 28-16 advantage at the half.
“I’m disappointed in our team,” James continued. “The way we prepared ourselves for this game. Yesterday (Monday) was a bad practice. We didn’t practice well at all and we carried it over into the game today.
“Football is an emotional game,” he explained, “and you have to have great focus and discipline and we failed at all those today.
“We came back in the second half and played with a little more emotion, played a little bit harder but, as far as the whole team goes — and that’s what I’ve got to gauge it by — I thought it was a very poor effort,” the coach added. “We had four or five plays that we could’ve made plays to stop a touchdown or score a touchdown and we didn’t execute. If you’re playing a good team, you can’t do that. But good teams have that mental preparation. They expect to make those plays. They expect for those plays to happen to them. And they put themselves in a state of mind that gives them the opportunity to be successful on every play.
“We were too worried about how we looked or what the guy in front of me was doing or behind me was doing, instead of doing the concept of what the team needs. We’ve got to put ourselves behind the team’s needs. We’ve got to play better team football.
“We’re real close,” James asserted. “I mean, you take five plays and we made a play — but that’s what teams that lose say. Teams that lose say, ‘Well, if and but these four or five plays, we could’ve won the game.’ If that’s where you want to be then you’re going to be there a lot. We’ve got to be better than that. We’ve got to prepare better than that.”
There will be plenty for both teams to review in the video room. Pulaski Academy ran 78 plays and Bryant snapped it 84 times. No one ever huddled. The Bruins, unofficially, amassed 474 yards while the Hornets accumulated 411 despite a dozen lost-yardage plays against the stunting PA defense. A significant difference in the game was the fact that the Hornets turned the ball over three times (at least one of which was highly contested) while the Bruins avoided turnovers (even though the Hornets caused a fumble or two and were in position for two or three interceptions).
“It’s how you get your motor revved up and how you try to win every play,” James noted. “Forget the last play and play the next one. We get guys out there that make a bad play then they sit there and linger for the next five or six plays then they make another bad play. You’ve got to have a short memory in athletics, especially against good teams, because they’re going to make plays. But we didn’t put ourselves in position to make the play, where they did.
“That’s the difference between them and us,” he asserted. “That’s the difference in them being a three-time State champion and us trying to win our first one. And if we don’t change how we think and how we prepare then that is a goal and an obstacle that’s still far out there for us. We can be better than we played tonight.”
Asked if there was a highlight he could point to, James praised sophomore defensive end Catrell Wallace. “He got after it and he was playing across from one of the best offensive lineman in the state,” he noted.
The relentless Pulaski Academy offense put points on the board on their first possession led by senior quarterback Layne Hatcher who wound up completing 22 of 43 passes for 323 yards in the contest.
The Hornets appeared to be on their way to answering that score as they drove from their own 30 to the PA 16 behind the passing of junior Ren Hefley and the running and receiving of LaTavion Scott. The Hornets faced a fourth-and-7 at the Bruins’ 46 along the way when Hefley and Luke Curtis combined on an 8-yard completion.
They overcame a procedure penalty but, once they got to the 16, they suffered consecutive losses and a fourth-down pass fell incomplete.
The offense was back on the field shortly as the Bryant defense forced a four-and-out, regaining possession just 22 yards from paydirt. They wound up having to settle for a 42-yard field goal by Martin Ramirez, however.
In nine plays, Pulaski Academy scored again on the second of Hatcher’s six touchdown passes. He would add another early in the second quarter to make it 21-3.
In turn, the Hornets drove 70 yards for their first touchdown capped by the first of Hefley’s two TD strikes, a 27-yard throw to Ja’Kalon Pittman, two plays after a 10-yard sack.
Hefley wound up completing 21 of 38 passes for 301 yards. Sophomore Jake Meaders was 4 of 7 for 74 yards. In all, 10 different Bryant receivers hauled in passes. Curtis and Matthew Sandidge had five catches apiece.
Hatcher led the Bruins on an answering touchdown drive to make it 28-10 and Bryant made a bid to score again only to have pass caught inside the PA 25. The ball was stripped and the Bruins recovered. James argued that the ball had not been secured and it should’ve been an incomplete pass but to no avail.
The defense forced the Bruins to go four and out again and, the Hornets took advantage of the short field. On the seventh play of the possession, Scott powered in from 3-yards out with :16 left in the half.
A try for two in hopes of making it a 10-point game with the Hornets getting the ball to start the second half was thwarted and the 12-point margin held at the break.
The first play of the third quarter was a sack and Bryant couldn’t recover. On the Bruins’ first play on offense, Hatcher hit Hudson Henry for a 29-yard touchdown to make it 35-16.
On the very next Bryant snap, however, Hefley and Brandon Murray combined on a 70-yard TD strike to make it 35-24.
The aerial circus continued when Hatcher found Henry again on a 50-yard touchdown that was the fifth play of the subsequent possession.
And the Hornets appeared to be end-zone bound as well. On the fifth play of their next try, Hefley connected with Sandidge on a 46-yard completion inside the PA 10 but the ball was dislodged on the tackle and the Bruins recovered at the 13.
Pulaski Academy used most of the rest of the third quarter. Adding to the aggravation for the Hornets, the drive was extended three times by Bryant penalties before the Bruins eventually turned it over on downs at the Hornets 44.
The junior varsity teams took over in the third quarter and Braden Bratcher threw a touchdown pass to Jayden Kelley on the first possession. Bryant answered with a 70-yard drive in nine plays. They march was in jeopardy after Meaders was sacked twice but, on a fourth-and-22, Meaders found C.J. Wallace who turned the reception into a 34-yard gain. A short pass to Ahmad Adams picked up 17 yards to set up Keethan Hudson’s 2-yard TD run.
The Hornets got the ball back with 4:44 left and drove to the PA 1. The drive was highlighted by a 21-yard pass from Meaders to Hunter Ulmer to convert a third down. At the 1, however, Meaders was dropped for a 6-yard loss. A fourth-down pass fell incomplete in the end zone.
As nearly every coach says, win or lose, after a benefit scrimmage, the Hornets still have some work to do. But then, that’s what scrimmages are for, to see how much work needs to be done.
Bryant opens the 2017 season on Saturday, Sept. 2, in the annual Salt Bowl battle with Benton, at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.