Photo by Rick Nation
Both teams had slow starts to the 2013 season. The El Dorado Wildcats lost all three of their non-conference games, all versus very good teams Camden Fairview, Fort Smith Southside and Little Rock Central. Bryant lost to Conway, beat Central the week before the Tigers took on the Wildcats, and lost to Little Rock Catholic.
The latter loss for the Hornets was look-in-the-mirror time. They responded with a dominant performance in the Salt Bowl against Benton then followed that up with a disappointing loss to Pine Bluff, something that, in recent years, has been a problem. (The week followed the Salt Bowl, the Hornets are 8-5 with losses in four consecutive years to Pine Bluff twice and Fort Smith Northside twice. While going 8-1 the previous nine years, they played Sheridan four times and an El Dorado program that was down during those year four times.)
Following that loss, the Hornets have been on a roll, getting better against the second-division teams in the South Conference (Fair, Sheridan and Texarkana) before overwhelming Lake Hamilton 49-14 last week in a game between teams tied for first.
El Dorado started getting well with wins over Fair and Sheridan as well but then slipped up against Texarkana. It was no doubt a wake-up call for the Cats and they bounced back by outscoring Lake Hamilton 44-34, stopping Pine Bluff 21-14 then easing past Benton last week 35-0.
Compare scores? El Dorado lost to Texarkana but beat Pine Bluff, which beat the Hornets who drilled Texarkana. (They’ve come so far since non-conference, their respective games against Central don’t really figure in.)
It’s a wash.
They have been on a collision course and the collision comes tonight when they’ll face each other at Bryant Stadium with the South Conference championship on the line.
There are post-season implications, though more for Bryant than El Dorado. The Wildcats (5-4, 5-1) have all but sewn up the top seed from the South for the Class 6A playoffs with tie-breaking wins over Lake Hamilton and Pine Bluff, both two-loss teams.
The Hornets (6-3, 5-1) are vying for seeding in the West Conference. They’re third going into tonight’s action but with a win coupled with a Bentonville victory over Fayetteville, they could move into second and earn a bye in the first round of the Class 7A playoffs.
Of course, that would irk those West schools just about as much as it irked Central Conference schools (including Bryant) when West Memphis was slotted into second after playing in the otherwise 6A-East a few years ago.
It’s the way it’s set up. It’s the way it is.
The Hornets and the Wildcats are similar. Though they do it in different fashion, they both run to set up the pass on offense and try to play smart, disciplined defense.
“They do what they do,” said Hornets defensive coordinator Steve Griffith regarding the El Dorado offense. “They execute really well. They’re not going to be like Lake Hamilton with a multitude of sets trying to baffle you with their alignment. They’re going to come out in an I-formation, a pro set, twin set football team that will break and run doubles and trips. But that’s pretty much it. You can tell they spend a tremendous amount of time on execution and they do a good job of it.
“It starts with the quarterback (senior Clayton) Waldrum,” he continued. “He has improved throughout the year. I think they have great confidence in him right now. He’s performed really well especially the last three or four weeks.
“(Ty) Owens and Dadraques) Harris are both outstanding receivers,” the coach reported. “They’re guys you have to know where they’re at. (Jaqualoyn) Willis, the running back, is a senior who does a good job. He’s very quick, very good at cutting back against the grain. You have to be disciplined and make sure you take care not just at the point of attack but their cutback. So they present a problem.”
Offensive coordinator Lance Parker indicated that the key for the Hornets will be blocking the Wildcats’ defensive line, which features senior defensive tackle Bijhon Jackson (6-2, 315) who has signed to play at the University of Arkansas next year.
“They have probably one of the most challenging defensive lines we’ve played,” Parker said. “I thought Pine Bluff was very athletic but El Dorado’s got a guy that’s going to play in the SEC.
“But I feel like we’re coming along on the offensive line,” he stated. “If we can just stay on our blocks. Our backs are playing so well, we don’t need much of a hole to cut. So, we’ve just got to get their really good players blocked then make the other guys miss. That’s kind of our goal, to make those other guys beat us and not the really good ones.
“Other than that, we’ve just got to get lined up, complete balls on first down when we take chances to throw early in drives and I’ll think we’ll do fine,” he related.
Regarding the Hornets’ backs, Kylon Boyle, Savonte Turner and Brushawn Hunter, Parker added, “We didn’t block everything like it was supposed to be blocked but I felt like the backs — we’ve been harping on situational football. There were several times we had outside zone called and the backs knew it was third-and-2 and they just decided to stick their head up in there and get the first, especially Boyle. I thought he advanced light years in that one game. I was shocked how well he played.
“I think they’re starting to understand that every situation is not the same in football,” he added. “You’ve got to treat third-and-1 different that you treat first-and-10 and second-and-1. I was really pleased with our awareness of situations I guess you could say.”
Griffith said his defense continued to improve last week when Lake Hamilton ended their shutout run of 17 consecutive quarters with a late TD against reserves. (The other score came on a kickoff return.)
“I feel good about our match-up,” he stated. “I feel like if our defensive line continues to play well like they have the last three or four weeks. I think our secondary’s gotten better as the year has progressed. With the linebackers in between those two groups, hopefully we’ll be able to match things up and continue with good focus. Our first group has had great focus the last few weeks. Very few busted assignments, very few missed alignments. And we’re beginning to play with more confidence. Hopefully, that will work out Friday night in our favor.”
The game will be the last regular-season home game for the Hornets so it’ll be Senior Night.