Photos by Rick Nation
Right down to the last minute of Friday’s Class 7A playoff game against the Fayetteville Bulldogs, the Bryant Hornets had something few, if any outside the program, thought they’d have:
Actually, they had a couple in the last four minutes.
But, even though they were headed to the legendary north end zone where so many thrilling victories have been nailed down over the last 16 years, they were unable cash in. The heavily favored Bulldogs, who came into the game averaging 55 points per outing, never led until the fourth quarter. They wound up escaping with a 30-24 win that ended the Hornets’ bid and a remarkable 2015 season.
It was a gut-punch to the Hornets, all too reminiscent of their game at Bentonville in the quarterfinals in 2014 when they led the Tigers, who were at home, going into the fourth quarter only to suffer a wrenching 17-7 loss.
Fayetteville, now 10-2, advances to play Bentonville next week as the tradition-rich 7A-West Conference once again makes up the entire 7A final four.
Bryant was making a bid to become the first in school history to get beyond the quarterfinals of the playoffs and, from the outset, it looked like it might happen.
Senior quarterback Gunnar Burks accounted for over 300 yards of offense, throwing for more yardage (267) than Fayetteville’s Taylor Powell, the leading passer in 7A and the State (210). The two teams combined for over 900 yards of offense.
The Hornets, who rang up 21 points in the first quarter, added a field goal in the second period then got shutout in the second half though they threatened three times.
The Bulldogs’ go-ahead score came on a 30-yard pass from Powell to Terrence Rock with 9:55 left in the game, snapping a 24-24 tie. But the extra point attempt by Joe Fagg hit the right upright and fell away no good. That left a door open for the Hornets who appeared to be on their way to a tying touchdown that, with an extra point by Hayden Ray, who was 32 of 34 in PAT’s this season counting three on Friday, would’ve given them the lead.
The fast start was marked by the Hornets’ surprising passing prowess but when they got the ball back with 9:48 left in the game, they went back to their bread-and-butter time-consuming ground game. The idea was eat up time, take the lead and leave the big-play Bulldogs little time to comeback.
It appeared Bryant was on its way to just that scenario as they marched to the Fayetteville 6 on 10 plays, chewing up yardage and clock. Hoping to preserve some time, Fayetteville called timeout twice after the Hornets got inside the 10.
Burks threw two passes during the drive, both completions to Jordan Gentry. A third fell incomplete but only because of defensive holding, which was marked off against the Bulldogs, converting a third-and-4 at the 15.
A speed sweep to Austin Kelly picked up a yard to the 6 but, on second-and-goal, Fayetteville blitzed heavily and dropped Burks before he could get his keeper started. So the Hornets faced a third-and-goal. They had, up to that point, converted a whopping 8 of 10 third-down situations in the contest.
From the 8, a pass to near the goal line evaded Aaron Orender as he dove back to try to scoop it before the ball hit the turf.
Facing a fourth-and-goal at the 8, the Hornets called a timeout with 3:28 to go. When play resumed, Burks lofted a pass into the left-corner of that magical north end zone towards Kelly who battled Fayetteville’s cornerback Kennedy Wade and nearly hauled it in with one hand. But Wade knocked it loose and the Hornets had been denied.
Fayetteville took over on the 8 and appeared to be in position to run out the clock, barely picking up a first down on a third-and-2 from the 16. A play later, running back Luke Rapert got stood up at the line of scrimmage and, tantalizingly, the ball came loose. But Powell recovered.
The Hornets used their last timeout with 1:14 to go. On third down, Powell actually dropped back to throw. The blitzing Hornets surrounded him and Mario Waits made a hit that jarred the ball loose. In the pile-up after the fumble, linebacker Hayden Knowles came away with the ball and, with 1:06 left, the Hornets were back in business, 23 yards away from perhaps the win.
On first down, Burks rolled right and did a great job of avoiding defensive end Luke Rhoads. He appeared to be trying to throw the ball away but it seemed to slip out of his hand a bit and it went right down the sideline. At the last second, however, Burks may have noticed that Terry appeared to be behind the secondary in the end zone. A late change of plan may have occurred.
Either way, the ball fluttered, stayed inbounds and was picked off by Nick Scalise at the 9 with :58.8 left to play. With Bryant out of timeouts, all Powell had to do was take a knee twice to complete the victory, a stinging loss for the Hornets.
Initially, it looked like Bryant might beat Fayetteville at its own game. Burks completed a 27-yard strike to Kelly on the second snap of the game and the Hornets drove to the Bulldogs’ 22 with DeAmonte Terry rushing for 32 yards on four carries. Burks then fired a 22-yard pass down the middle to Landon Smith for the touchdown. Ray added the extra point.
Fayetteville answered with an 11-play, 80-yard scoring drive that included six consecutive completions by Powell. From the 15, Rapert bowled in for the touchdown.
But the Bulldogs decided to go for 2 and get the lead only to have the Hornets cover well. Powell overthrew everyone and Bryant held a 7-6 edge.
It became 14-6 in short order. On the second play of the ensuing possession, Burks found Kelly behind the secondary and, with a perfect pass, hit his receiver in stride, resulting in an 81-yard touchdown play.
Fayetteville’s next possession began at its own 34. And there was a whistle that sounded like an official calling the play dead before the snap. A few of the Bryant defenders appeared to look up but Fayetteville snapped the ball and Javontae Smith sprinted 66 yards for an quick answer. This time, Jon Fagg kicked the extra point so Bryant led 14-13 with 3:27 left in the first quarter.
The Hornets took their turn. On first down at their own 29, they tried a halfback pass. But Fayetteville didn’t bite as Terry took a pitch and threw incomplete. However, that set up a big play moments later. First, Burks completed a third-down pass to Smith to the 40. He and Orender combined on a 17-yard completion on the next play.
From the Fayetteville 43, Terry again took a pitch and made a move to indicate he was passing again. But he tucked it, turned the corner with a big block from Orender and tight end Jaret Jacobs, sprinting 25 yards to the 18.
Another wrinkle followed. Burks started toward the line of scrimmage as if on a keeper but pulled up behind his offensive line and lofted a pass over the middle. Coming from the wing, Kelly made a tremendous catch, somehow holding on when he was drilled at the 3. A play later, Burks scored from the 2 and Ray kicked it to 21-13.
The defense responded by forcing a three-and-out and the only punt of the entire game. On first down, Knowles and Cameron Murray stopped Rapert for a one-yard gain. On second down, Powell handed off to Rapert who got to the line of scrimmage and pitched back to Powell who looked deep down the right side only to have cornerback Pierce Finney knock the ball down. A third-down pass was incomplete as Waits and Kameron Guillory pressured Powell.
A short punt gave Bryant the ball at its own 46. With momentum gathering, the Hornets picked up a first down on a 10-yard keeper by Burks only to have the ball come loose. Though it looked like the ground may have caused it, the officials signaled that Fayetteville had recovered at its own 37.
The Bulldogs drove to the Bryant 18 where Rapert’s third-and-one run was stopped short. On fourth down, though, Powell kept and got enough. At the 15, he found Rock in the back of the end zone but Quinton Royal made up ground and drilled Rock as the ball arrived, jarring it loose. A third-down throw was nearly intercepted by safety Cameron Vail so the Bulldogs had to settle for a 27-yard field goal by Fagg that made it 21-16.
So the Hornets had another chance to make it a two-score lead. They drove from their own 20 to the Fayetteville 9. Along the way, they converted a pair of third-down plays. The first on a run by Burks. The second on his pass to Smith. From the 24, Kelly made another eye-popping catch at the 9. On first-and-goal, Terry got the call and made a nice cut on a sweep then sliced his way into the end zone for an apparent touchdown. But a holding penalty was called, negating the play.
Bryant had to eventually settle for an answering field goal. Ray drilled it from 28 yards out for his 13th field goal of the season, tying the school single-season record set by Todd Bryant in 2002.
Fayetteville made the most of the final :51.7 of the half. Rock broke a 24-yard run then Powell threw to Morris to the 25. With :02.5 left, the Bulldogs lined up for a field goal but, at the last second, shifted. Holder Barrett Banister became the quarterback. But his pass was knocked down right at the goal line by Vail.
Fayetteville opened the second half with a game-tying drive of 77 yards in 10 plays. The march appeared to be sidetracked when from the Bulldogs’ 47, Powell threw a shovel pass to Rock who was hemmed in by the Bryant defense. He tried to reverse field only to find more Hornets. He gave ground and and was hauled down for a loss of 11 by Madre Dixon and Devon Alpe.
On the next play, however, Powell completed a 22-yard pass to keep the drive alive. Rupert converted a third-and-2 from the 34 and, on the next snap, Powell pump-faked on a bubble screen and threw downfield to Garland Allison who skated into the end zone for a touchdown.
Fayetteville decided to go for 2 to try to even the score. Though the Hornets had all the receivers covered as Powell rolled to his right, he was able to avoid a tackle and, running against the grain, dive into the end zone to make it 24-24.
Terrance Rock intercepted a pass by Terry but, moments later, after Marvin Moody sacked Powell, Royal stepped in front of Morris at the 6 and made his sixth interception of the season.
The Hornets had to overcome a pair of holding penalties that negated good yardage but they drove to the Fayetteville 21. Orender’s leaping catch of a pass from Burks turned into a 30-yard gain to highlight the drive. Smith caught a 12-yard throw. But, on a third-and-2 at the 21, Burks was tackled for a one-yard loss by Eli Hale.
Working the clock down on fourth-and-3, the Hornets kept the offense on the field then rushed Ray and the field-goal unit onto the field, hoping to keep Fayetteville from getting in position to block the kick. But Ray miss-hit the ball and it went wide left, leaving it 24-24 with :27.7 left in the third period.
Fayetteville took over on the 20 and put together the drive that gave them the lead. They converted a pair of third-down situations during the drive.
That set up the concluding thrill ride and, ultimately, the Hornets’ heartache as they came so close to pulling a huge upset.