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The same team that scored just 44 points over their first four games, eclipsed 40 points in a game for the second week in a row Friday night.
The same team that managed less that 150 yards of offense in the Salt Bowl, 233 against defending State champion Fayetteville, and 239 in a shutout loss to Fort Smith Northside, also amassed 471 yards of offense Friday night.
And, with a defense shutting out the 7A-Central Conference rival Little Rock Central Tigers in the second half, the Hornets turned a tie game late in the second quarter into a 41-17 romp.
On the heels of a 41-27 win at Little Rock Catholic the previous week, the Hornets improved to 2-1 in league play and 4-2 overall. It was not only the first time Bryant has won back-to-back games this season, it was the team’s first victory of the season on their home field.
The key to the blooming offensive production has been the development of the offensive line where line coach Shane Clancy has been mixing and matching, plugging guys in due to injuries and, most of all, teaching. With no one returning from an all-senior front in 2015, it has been a challenge. Though Clancy admitted that they still need to improve, he acknowledged their hard work as did head coach Buck James after Friday’s win.
“I think our offensive line played very well,” James stated. “It’s a big thing. As long as they can keep getting better, we’ve got a chance to keep doing better each and every week.”
“We’ve had a lot of injuries on the offensive line and, finally, getting one — this is the second week where the same group has played this whole season,” said Hornets offensive coordinator Robert Hooks. “That right there, just having the same group gelling and being able to play together.”
That group includes guard Chandler Davis and tackle Joseph Wyllia on the right side. Tackles Zak Kemp or Blaise Smith and guard Jace Houston on the left side along with sophomore Josh Stevens at center. Stevens is the fourth player to start at center this season.
“We lost Kemp last week but he came back and had a great practice,” Hooks mentioned. “Blaise who’s a sophomore, came in and did a great job for us as the back-up left tackle. Stevens has done a good job two weeks in a row.”
The Hornets wound up running 79 plays on offense to Central’s 52.
Still, the Tigers rallied for a 14-0 deficit early on to tie the game at 17 with just 1:41 left in the half. And when the ensuing kickoff went for a touchback and the Hornets set up offensively at the 20 with so little time left, some might’ve thought they’d play it safe and take the tie into the locker room.
But that’s not what Bryant did. Instead, on the first play of the series, sophomore quarterback Ren Hefley completed a pass for 9 yards to Reece Coates. A play later, Jeremiah Long, who led Bryant’s bevy of runners, with 89 yards on 12 carries, broke a 12-yard run.
A screen pass from Hefley to DeAmonte Terry picked up 14 yards and a roughing the passer penalty on the play moved the ball to the Central 30 with less than a minute left.
A 6-yard pass to Terry and a 12-yard run by Randy Thomas got the ball to the Tigers 12. The Hornets took a couple of unsuccessful shots at the end zone before calling on Hayden Ray, who drilled a 29-yard field goal with :19.3 on the clock.
Having won the coin toss and deferred until the second half, the Hornets were set to get the ball right back to start the third quarter.
“We tell our team, we want to defer in the first half,” acknowledged James. “We want to play defense, give us good field position, and score first. And then score right before half, get the ball back in the second half and score again. That really gives you a chance at a 21-point spread if we execute everything like we’re supposed to execute.
“And, you know, the last two weeks we’ve done a really good job of that,” he said. “But you’ve got to play good defense to be able to do it.”
In the second half, the Bryant defense held Central without a first down on the first three possessions. By the time the Tigers managed to get one, the Hornets had pushed out to a 34-17 lead.
The Tigers’ sophomore running back Oscar Adaway had rushed for 135 yards in the first half, including a 60-yard run plus a 76-yarder, much of which was negated by a blocking penalty. After a 27-yard run early in the second quarter, however, the Hornets shut him down. Going into the final two minutes of the game, Adaway had netted minus-4 yards on four carries following intermission. He would finish with 151 yards on 19 carries overall.
“We actually just fixed our technique, the fundament parts of the game,” said defensive coordinator Darrell Burnett. “We weren’t squeezing gaps and turning our shoulders. We weren’t reading the triangle, the middle linebacker read. We pretty much were getting our eyes in the backfield, falling for the eye candy, the motions and going one way when they were running another.
“We just settled down, made sure we fixed the fundamental part of the game the second half,” he added. “The kids made the adjustment.”
Further, Burnett related, “Then we put Nick Smith in. We pretty much went to a three-front, a true three-front with four ‘backers. We put Nick in (as one of the middle linebackers). He’s good at reading. We challenged the three guys up front to stop the run, as well as those ‘backers. And we did.
“We forced them to throw the ball. They had a back-up quarterback and they completed some passes. We had too much separation between us and the receiver but we held up.”
The Tigers’ starting QB Jacob Howard did not dress out, apparently due to injury.
“I thought our defense relaxed when our offense started doing really good,” James mentioned. “I thought they played extremely well. We just came out and played like we’re capable of playing. Coach Burnett did a good job challenging them at halftime.”
Offensively, the Hornets created more early success. Through the first four games of the season, they hadn’t produced a first-quarter score. But they built a 17-0 lead at Catholic in the opening stanza and, on Friday, jumped out 14-0.
The defense helped create good field position as Central’s first two snaps lost 13 yards including a 12-yard sack of quarterback Donald Richardson by senior Hayden Knowles on the first play of the game.
Bryant got the ball for the first time at its own 32. The Hornets’ first three plays picked up first downs. Long dashed for 10 yards, Hefley hit Seth Tucker for an 11-yard completion then Long broke for 16.
Two plays later, Helfly found Reece Coates on an out route. After making the grab, Coates curled around a defender and dashed to the pylon for a 33-yard touchdown play.
Two plays into Central’s next series, Richardson fumbled and Bryant linebacker Marvin Moody recovered 32-yard away from another score.
Coates broke a 25-yard run but an illegal block negated nearly half of it. From the 19, however, Terry dashed into the end zone on the next play. Just less than halfway through the first quarter, Bryant had 14 points and Central had run just five plays from scrimmage on offense.
It was then that Adaway got loose on his 60-yard run. Cornerback Collin Welch, who made a tackle to save a touchdown and a win at the end of the Salt Bowl, chased down Adaway at the Bryant 22.
A play later, Moody stopped running back Andre Bradley for a loss only to have Richardson’s pass to Adaway break for 16-yards and a first down at the 3. Adaway would score from there.
Central force Bryant’s first punt but Ray turned the field position around with a 48-yard boot. After a penalty moved the Tigers back, Adaway broke loose again, this time for a 76-yard touchdown to apparently tie it. But an illegal block in the back wiped out most of the gain.
The Tigers managed another first down despite a tackle on Adaway for a 2-yard loss by Avery Everett. They stalled, however, at the Bryant 43.
After Ronnel punted the Hornets back to their own 17, Hefley completed a pair of passes including a clutch 15-yard strike to Luke Curtis. Aided by a face mask penalty, they drove to the Central 27, giving Ray a chance to knock through a 44-yard field goal against the breeze from the North. It was the longest 3-pointer of Ray’s career.
Adaway’s 27-yard run to start the next possession for Central proved to be his last big gain of the game. With Josh Cole in the game, Hayden Knowles broke through and forced the quarterback to bale out on a pass play. Kajuan Robinson got a sack.
A play later, the Tigers faced a third-and-14 from their own 46. But Cole hit Bradley for 17 yards.
Central drove to the Bryant 9 where Knowles yanked down Adaway for a loss on third down. Ronnel came on to kick a 27-yard field goal to make it 17-10.
With Terry alternating between slot receiver and “wildcat” quarterback, the Hornets drove to the Central 42. A Hefley pass was tipped then intercepted by Derrick Blake who returned 63 yards for a touchdown only to have it negated by a major penalty against the Tigers.
They scored anyway. Cole and Kivi Murry connected from 43-yards away and Ronnel’s extra point had the game tied 17-17.
From that point on it was all Bryant.
“Moving DeAmonte out to a receiver spot was a big move,” James said. “It widened the field for us. They couldn’t blitz us like they normally want to do. I thought our offense played well and our defense, after being challenged at halftime, came back and played very well. The kicking game was pretty solid.
“Offensively, I think they’re getting some confidence,” he added. “That’s what we needed. And we’ve got a few weapons when we’re spreading the ball around and doing some things.”
“We had our best week of practice this week,” Hooks related. “The guys were really locked in and focused. We didn’t have to repeat plays. Anytime you put in a new system, you have to kind of slow it down. I thought, early in the season, we were maybe trying to rush and put in too much. We had to take a look back and kind of shorten it up, not put as much in. And execute. I thought the kids did a good job of coming out and executing tonight.
“(Central) played a lot of man coverage,” he noted. “We saw plenty of man in the spring against our defense. We were able to get open and we did that early. We kind of hurt them in the passing game, which I thought opened up the run game for us to finish it off.”
With 10 runners contributing, the Hornets rushed for 342 yards.
Starting with a 7-yard pass to Terry in the third quarter, the Hornets mixed run-pass for a drive from their own 20 to the Central 17. They grinded for most of the yardage. Coates caught a 7-yard throw and Tucker ran the fly sweep for 19.
At the 17, Hefley fired to Tucker who was dragged down inside the 5. But the play was called back due to a holding penalty and the Hornets wound up turning the ball over on downs after eating up nearly half of the quarter.
In turn, Central got nowhere. Ronnel came in to punt and, despite muffing the catch, Brandon Murray scooped up the ball, retreated to his own 20 then sprinted for a 38-yard return.
Behind the running of Cameron Coleman, Bryant drove to the 7. On second-and-3, however, linebacker Tanner Barrett knifed through to drop Coleman for a 5-yard loss.
On the next play, Hefley threw the first pass of the drive and connected with Curtis on a 12-yard touchdown.
The Hornets once again had a two-score lead with 2:47 left in the third quarter.
Big stops by Knowles and Jakob Neel forced a three-and-out for the Tigers. Ronnel unleashed a 58-yard punt so the Hornets got the ball back at their own 7.
Bryant picked up a first down but had to punt it back, giving the Tigers a chance from midfield. But tackles for losses were turned in by Antonio Todd then Neel and Knowles and Central punted back.
With Coates running the wildcat, the Hornets drove to a clinching touchdown, 80 yards in seven plays, mostly read-option. Long had runs of 11 and 10. Coates had gains of 10 and 29. Long scored from the 1 and Ray kicked it to 34-17 with 6:25 left.
Aided by a pass interference penalty, the Tigers drove to their own 45 where Moody knocked the ball loose from Marlo Thompson and Todd recovered with 4:48 left.
The weary Central defense was gashed for a final touchdown drive, set up by the running of Kris King and capped by a 20-yard bolt by LaTavion Scott. Ray’s PAT set the final score with 2:08 left.
Bryant travels to Fort Smith Southside next Friday in search of a third consecutive victory.