Photos by Rick Nation
GREENWOOD — The best thing about that one for the Bryant Hornets is that it’s over.
Oh, there were some other good things. Not the least of which was the chance of playing in a showdown of unbeaten teams this late in the season. Only one other Hornets team in the history of the program dating back to 1949 had ever done that, the 1999 team that won its first 11 games.
And there was the fact that the Hornets beat the Greenwood Bulldogs to the punch initially, grabbing a 7-0 lead on a 23-yard pass from Gunnar Burks to Austin Kelly with 9:01 left in the first quarter. Plus the fact that the Hornets defense made that hold up for quite awhile, turning back three Bulldog drives in the first half that reached the Bryant 7, 22 and 1, respectively. Those three possessions produced just 3 points combined.
With two minutes left in the first half, the Hornets had held Greenwood, which came in averaging 45 points per game, to just 10.
But the Bulldogs put together a scoring drive in the final two minutes of the first half to extend their lead to 17-7, then scored on the opening drive of the second half. Bryant made a bid to cut into the 24-7 lead on its first possession of the second half only to be turned back at the Greenwood 14.
The Bulldogs added two more scoring drives and went on to capture a 38-7 victory before a crowd of active, vocal supporters stuffed into the home-side bleachers and beyond. (Bryant had a good contingent on hand as well but was without its band, cheer and dance squads, in part at least, due to the travel restrictions instituted by the school administration to cut the expense budget.)
It was, perhaps, the most anticipated game of the season for Greenwood, a perennial Class 6A power, after they’d lost at Bryant in 2014, 38-21. That was just the second loss by a Bulldogs’ team to a Class 7A opponent since they moved up to 6A and started playing 7A teams in 2012. It was their sixth victory over a 7A team just this season and 16th in 18 games against 7A teams since the start of the 2012 season, a stretch in which they’ve now gong 40-5 overall.
The only other loss to a 7A team in that stretch was to Conway in 2014, 42-37. They avenged that one too, whipping Conway 56-19, on Oct. 9.
Ironically, Bryant, which came into the game as the most successful rushing team in the 7A/6A-Central Conference, was held to a season low 120 yards on the ground (with a chunk of that coming late in the game after reserves had taken over for both teams). Greenwood came into the game as the most prolific passing team in the league, averaging just shy of 300 yards a game but finished with just 122 against Bryant.
Too, the Hornets were the toughest against the run, allowing an average of just 88 yards a game on the ground. But Greenwood piled up 398 yards rushing.
Greenwood’s hurry-hurry no-huddle offense produced 84 offensive snaps, nearly matching their total offense average per game at 520 yards. Bryant ran 55 plays.
But the burgeoning crowd was stunned into silence early. Not only did the Hornets defense force a three-and-out on the Bulldogs’ initial possession, when they got the ball back after the punt, they went to the air. Kelly, running out of a tight wing position, got lost behind the Bulldogs’ secondary for a 54-yard completion on first down. The 23-yard touchdown strike came on the very next play. Two plays, 77 yards, paydirt and, with Hayden Ray’s extra point, it was 7-0.
Then, when Greenwood drove to the Bryant 9 and had a first and goal, more stunned silence when the defense made a stand and forced the Bulldogs to settle for Cooper’s field goal, which left them still trailing the visiting Hornets.
The fans had to breathe a sigh of relief when Burks appeared to have Aaron Orender open behind the defense again on a deep throw down the seam. Bulldogs’ safety Jax Burgess got back just in time to knock the ball away just as it got to the streaking Bryant receiver.
In turn, the Bulldogs had to use a fake punt to keep its next drive alive. They were in a fourth-down situation after a first-down pass was sniffed out by linebacker Malcolm Moody, who dropped Daylan Hood for a loss.
But punter Grant Morgan — younger brother of the University of Arkansas’ Drew Morgan — took off and went 15 yards to convert the fourth-and-8 at the Bulldogs own 44.
The Bulldogs marched on to reach the 22. A third-down pass from there was off the mark then, on a fourth-down throw over the middle, Bryant’s sophomore safety Cameron Vail broke up the pass and the Hornets took over on downs.
Vail actually led the Hornets with 14 tackles. Another d-back, sophomore Michael Jones was in on 12 stops and Moody 11. Jaelyn Jones, another member of the secondary had nine tackles.
The Hornets went three-and-out, however, and punted the Dogs back to their 32. There was a good indication it was just Greenwood’s night when Hood was separated from the football on a first down run only to have receiver Ryan Padilla scoop it up and add a few yards.
Moments later, the Bulldogs had to convert a fourth-down play at the Bryant 44, 6-2, 228-pound quarterback Luke Hales eked out 2 yards to keep the drive alive and Greenwood drove the rest of the way for a go-ahead touchdown, a one-yard plunge by running back Caden Martin, a hard-running 5-8, 165-pound mighty mite.
Martin would go on to rush for 106 yards and three touchdowns. Hood finished with 133 yards and two scores.
Stymied again, the Hornets went three-and-out. The enthusiasm of the Greenwood faithful began to grow again as the Bulldogs drove to the Bryant 6. On a second-and-goal there, Hood squirmed to the 1. But the ball came loose and Moody recovered for the Hornets, drawing a hush over the hometown fans.
With 3:57 left in the half and still trailing just 10-7, the Hornets needed at least to pick up a couple of first downs to get it closer to halftime before they punted it back to Greenwood. But they ran three plays including a pair of incomplete passes and there was still 2:39 left when the Bulldogs got the ball back after a short punt.
Actually, Burks’ first pass of that series deep in the Hornets’ own territory might have been caught by Orender. But he had a defender hanging all over him and could only reach out with one hand to try to catch the ball. Amazingly, he came pretty close.
But it was wrestling match much of the game for the Hornet receivers, much to the frustration of Bryant head coach Paul Calley.
It looked like the Hornets caught a big break when a 22-yard pass play from Greenwood’s sophomore quarterback Connor Noland to Andrew McGill was negated due to a holding penalty. The Bulldogs were backed up to the Bryant 46 and faced a first and 24.
But they got off the hook. The Hornets forced a fourth-and-5 at the Bryant 27. Greenwood went for it but Noland, back to pass, had to scramble around to keep the play alive as the Bryant rush pressured him and, twice, nearly had a sack. Finally, sprinting left, Noland just barely got a pass away as he was drilled. It looked like he was just trying to throw the ball away to avoid the sack but, somehow, Padilla came back and caught it at the 10.
Greenwood called a timeout with 1:25 to go. A play later, Martin crashed into the end zone from the 4.
So, instead of trailing 10-7 and feeling pretty good about the second half, the Hornets were down by 10 at the break with all the momentum going Greenwood’s way.
On the first drive of the second half, it looked like the Hornets might turn back the Bulldogs again. Greenwood faced a third-and-one at its own 40 when Hales faked into the line and kept off left tackle. The play broke for 42 yards, setting up Martin’s third TD from the 8.
Just that quickly, it went from 10-7 to 24-7.
Bryant made a bid to keep it close. Burks hit Landon Smith for 14 yards and, a play later, found Orender for 9. On a third-and-7 at the Greenwood 41, Smith grabbed Burks’ throw for 8 yards to convert.
Moments later, the Bulldogs made another bid to halt a drive having forced the Hornets into a fourth-and-8 situation at the Bryant 31. Again, however, Burks laced a pass to Jordan Gentry to convert at the 20. But, other than a 6-yard scramble by the Bryant quarterback, the Hornets could get no closer, turning the ball over on downs at the 14 with 5:20 left in the third quarter.
Needing a defensive stand to keep their hopes alive, the Hornets came up with one. Kameron Guillory and Mario Waits stopped Noland for no gain on third-and-3 at the Greenwood 34. Morgan came in to punt and, a sudden shift drew an offsides penalty.
Calley argued vehemently that the shift was an illegal one.
The play stood, however, and Greenwood marched the rest of the way for a back-breaking touchdown. Hood carried over from the 4 to make it 31-7 with 1:24 left in the third quarter.
Chace Henson made a splendid return of the ensuing kickoff. The Hornets’ reserves took over and, with the Greenwood starters in, got close to a first down on runs by Drew Alpe and Brandon Murray. But a third-down pass was intercepted.
With Bryant reserves in on defense, the Greenwood first-team offense drove for a final touchdown, capped by Hood’s run from the 4. He set up the TD with a 37-yard burst.
With reserves playing for both teams, the Hornets moved the ball behind the running of Brandon Murray, Jeremiah Long and Kris King. But they turned the ball over on downs at the Greenwood 34.
They got another shot after a Bulldogs’ punt. The same trio of running backs, particularly Murray, highlighted a drove from the Bryant 29 to the Greenwood 4 as time ran out.
The 31-point deficit was the most lopsided for a Hornets’ team since a 35-0 loss at North Little Rock in 2011.
Though it was a big game in the sense that both teams were unbeaten, the outcome has no effect on either team’s chances of making the State playoffs in their respective classification. This Friday’s Homecoming game against Class 7A Van Buren will count, making it a much more important contest. With a win, the Hornets could clinch their 13th consecutive trip to State.