The desperately contested Central Arkansas Junior High Conference war between the Bryant Hornets and the North Little Rock Charging Wildcats freshman teams on Thursday night, appeared to be headed for a tie.
With 1:47 left, the Hornets had been stymied on a drive to the North Little Rock 23. Miguel Garcia tried a 40-yard field goal and it was off to the left and a little short.
On what appeared to be the last gasp for North Little Rock, Bryant defensive end Johnny Wallace and linebacker Kris King had sacked Cats’ quarterback David Chapple back at his own 19. So with just over a minute left, North Little Rock punted.
Given another shot by their defense, the Hornets offense took advantage of the short field. Cameron Vail came out of the backfield at a wing, ran an out and up after teammate Tristan Calhoun had cleared the left side with a drag rout across the middle. Quarterback Michael Jones, under pressure, got the throw away and Vail hauled it in for a tie-breaking 33-yard touchdown pass.
Luke Welch added the extra point and it was 21-14 with :50.2 to go.
North Little Rock tried to get something going in the air to knot it up again. Chapple faked a handoff to the right, rolled left then turned to throw back to the right on a screen pass. But Wallace, a big-play performer all night, stepped in front of the throw, caught it in stride and sprinted 32 yards for a clinching TD with :31.8 left.
North Little Rock covered a squib kick at its own 47 and North Little Rock went back to the air. Wideout Deontae Montgomery somehow got free behind the Bryant secondary and Chapple found him for a 53-yard touchdown.
A try for two failed, however, as Antonio Todd hauled down Chapple and when the Hornets’ controlled the onside kick and took a knee twice, they celebrated a hard-earned 27-20 victory.
The two teams produced three touchdowns in a span of 29 seconds on the scoreboard clock, creating a thrilling finish.
“That was a big one,” declared Bryant coach Kenny Horn, whose team improved to 4-0 overall and 2-0 in league play going into next Thursday’s home game against Conway Blue. “We made two big plays when we had to have them. The touchdown you would’ve thought would seal it then Wallace, golly, the interception for a touchdown. That was big, especially since they came back and hit the long touchdown pass on us.”
The Wildcats came into the game determined to stop Bryant’s running game. Defensively, they deployed with five down linemen and often had seven or eight in the box (within five-yards of the line of scrimmage) all attacking, getting penetration. Bryant, which had averaged over 138 yards rushing in its three games so far this season, was stymied. On 21 rushes in the game, the Hornets lost yardage 10 times. They were held to a net of 20 yards on 13 rushes in the first half and wound up with 23 yards on 23 attempts in the game.
Dared to throw, quarterback Michael Jones wound up completing 8 of 20 passes but at least four were dropped. Each of the completions, however, seemed to come at crucial times. On top of that, with the Wildcats’ secondary forced to play man-to-man, they wound up being cited for pass interference four times and a fifth could’ve been called.
“We didn’t play clean,” Horn said, referring to his team’s eight penalties and one turnover. “We didn’t execute real well. Obviously we couldn’t run the football, they had the box loaded so much.
“I thought we threw okay,” he related. “We did not catch real well tonight. We had many dropped catches, which is a little bit out of the ordinary. We usually catch pretty well. But, you know what? We made the catches when we had to. As ugly as I may have thought it was, the bottom line is, we beat a good team.”
It’s worth noting that the North Little Rock High School team may be as talented as any in the state. There’s little doubt they’ve got more on the way with this crop of freshmen. They are big, fast and physical.
But the Hornets’ defense was just as stingy as North Little Rock’s. Take away that 53-yard touchdown pass at the end and the Wildcats were limited to 90 yards of total offense.
And the defense produced two scores, both by Wallace.
The two teams traded punts early on. When Bryant’s Grayson Prince turned one over that went 38 yards and a clipping penalty pushed the Cats back further, they were backed up to their own 14.
On first down there, a bad snap resulted in a loose ball. Wallace scooped it up at the 7 and stepped into the end zone for the first score of the game.
Running out of the old swinging gate formation, the Hornets added the two-point conversion on a run by Vail to make it 8-0 with 1:29 left in the first quarter.
“Two defensive scores always helps you,” Horn acknowledged.
North Little Rock answered in impressive fashion. A 25-yard return of the kickoff by Jalen Grisley gave the Cats good field position. After grinding out a first down, a handoff to fullback Dennis Carroll broke for 24 yards to the 13.
A fine open-field tackle by James Polite cost North Little Rock a yard but, on the next play, Chapple skirted left end for a 14-yard touchdown. Carroll powered in for the conversion and it was 8-8.
And when Bryant fumbled on the first play of their subsequent possession, Ficklin Khai recovered for North Little Rock 34 yards away from a go-ahead touchdown.
It took four plays, starting with a reverse throwback pass. Wideout Joseph Howard got a handoff going right, turned and threw back to Chapple. It broke for 22 yards to the Bryant 12. Two plays later, Carroll scored on a 1-yard plunge.
Even though, North Little Rock benefited from an onside penalty on the conversion attempt, Carroll was stopped short of success by Wallace and James McClendon, leaving it 14-8.
In fits and starts, the Hornets answered. A 26-yard pass from Jones to Jakalon Pittman got the march started. Jones kept for 8 yards then converted third down with a sneak. Diante Woodson slashed for 8 yards but a false start cost Bryant 5, moving the ball back from the 12 to the 17.
After a 2-yard completion to Vail, Jones looked for Luke Curtis in the end zone. He was interfered with and couldn’t get to the ball, giving Bryant a first down.
Jones was dumped for a loss but another pass interference call on the next play kept the drive alive at the 8. The Hornets reached the 1 and, on fourth down, Jones sneaked it in with :05.9 showing on the clock before halftime.
A try for 2 failed and it was 14-14 at the half.
North Little Rock got the ball the first half but go nowhere on offense thanks to big stops by Wallace and Ray Davis. Polite batted away a third-down pass, resulting in a punt.
With the help of another pass interference call (and despite a holding penalty a couple of plays later), Bryant drove to the 20. The big play was a 28-yard completion from Jones to Vail, who was left uncovered in the slot and just sprinted down the seam uncovered.
But the drive stalled at the 20 after a third-down pass was dropped and a fourth-down pass was knocked down at the line of scrimmage.
The Wildcats picked up a first down but lost 5 yards on fumbled snap. They got back to third-and-3 at their own 40 but Chapple was stopped by Todd and King. A fourth-down run by Carroll failed when Wallace got penetration low and tripped him up before he got to the line of scrimmage.
Given the short field, the Hornets threatened to retake the lead. Jones and Vail combined on a 23-yard pass and, a play later, the same combo appeared to have a touchdown. But a penalty negated the play.
Calhoun caught a 13-yard strike to the 11 and, on a fourth-and-1 from the 10, Jones threw into the end zone. The North Little Rock defender never looked back for the ball and appeared to just face guard the receiver. Though Horn and his staff protested, seeking another interference call, none was forthcoming and North Little Rock took over at its own 10.
The Hornets forced a three-and-out, thanks to plays by Hunter Howard, Parker Littleton and Johnny Smith.
A clutch catch by Pittman converted a third down and the fourth interference penalty helped the Hornets reach the 23 but a pair of dropped passes resulted in a fourth-and-10 with 1:47 left. Garcia came on to try the long field goal, setting up the thrilling finish.
BRYANT 27, NORTH LITTLE ROCK 20
Score by quarters
NLR 0 14 0 6 — 20
BRYANT 8 6 0 13 — 27
BRYANT — Wallace 7 fumble return (Vail run), 1:29
NORTH LITTLE ROCK — Chapple 14 run (Carroll run), 6:18
NORTH LITTLE ROCK — Carroll 1 run (run failed), 4:43
BRYANT — Jones 1 run (run failed), 0:05.9
BRYANT — Vail 33 pass from Jones (Welch kick), 0:50.2
BRYANT — Wallace 32 interception return (kick failed), 0:31.8
NORTH LITTLE ROCK — Montgomery 53 pass from Chapple (run failed), 0:21.2
First downs 9 10
Rushes-yds 27-68 23-23
Passing 2-7-1 8-20-0
Passing yds 75 143
Punts-avg. 4-28.0 2-32.5
Fumbles-lost 4-1 2-1
Penalties-yds 6-73 8-53
Rushing: BRYANT, Woodson 6-26, Jones 17-(-3); NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Carroll 7-44, Howard 7-20, Grisley 2-8, Montgomery 1-8, Hadley 1-1, Christopher 3-1, Chapple 6-(-14).
Passing (C-A-I-Y): BRYANT, Jones 8-20-0-143; NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Chapple 1-6-1-53, Howard 1-1-0-22.
Receiving: BRYANT, Vail 4-86, Pittman 2-38, Calhoun 1-13, Curtis 1-5; NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Montgomery 1-53, Chapple 1-22.