For more photos from this event by Kevin Nagle, go here
FORT SMITH — The coaching staff of the Fort Smith Northside Grizzlies probably didn’t have to see a lot of video on the Bryant Hornets before they realized they liked to fling the ball around a little bit. Of quarterback Ren Hefley’s eight touchdown passes coming into the game, only one was for less than 25 yards including four of them the previous week against the Lake Hamilton Wolves.
So the Griz were determined to stop that when the two teams met in their 7A-Central Conference opener at Mayo-Thompson Stadium Friday night.
When Bryant would split out two receivers to one side, the Grizzlies’ secondary often manned-up initially with a safety over the top, thus three covering two. Or if the Hornets went to trips, the three receivers were checked by three Griz with a safety covering deep.
They wanted to make the Hornets throw short with the defensive backs closing hard and sticking the receiver soon after he caught it.
Hefley still threw three touchdown passes, again all over 25 yards but those were three of just seven completions in 15 throws.
With such heavy coverage, it often left the Grizzlies short in the box against the Hornets’ offensive line featuring tackles Zak Kemp and Blaise Smith, guards Logan Burton, Clay McElyea and Joseph Wyllia along with centers Preston Kyzer and Josh Stevens along with H back Luke Curtis.
Given that advantage in the trenches (until late when Northside, desperate to get the ball back as time dwindled, loaded up the box), the Hornets ran the ball 51 times for 210 yards including a workhorse effort by junior LaTavion Scott who carried 37 times for 172 yards and a touchdown in a 31-12 victory.
It was the first time in seven meetings since 1999 that any Hornet team had defeated Northside.
“That says a lot,” said James whose team improved to 4-0 overall this season and will, no doubt, remain highly ranked (anywhere to 1 to 3) in the state. “At the end of the year, it’s going to say that we won at Northside and we won by 13 points and we won the first conference game on the road.”
Thirteen points is the maximum that counts towards tiebreakers for playoff seeding.
“That’s the main thing,” the coach added. “How we do it — we’re going to have games when we go out there and light it up and we’re going to have games where we go out there and struggle at times. It’s not as easy as it looks.
The Hornets threw the ball just six times in the second half.
“It wasn’t by design,” said Hornets coach Buck James regarding the grind-it-out offense particularly in the second half. “We just took what they gave us. We said we’d just take time off the clock. We took the conservative side of it but there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Meanwhile, the Hornets’ defense made tackles for losses a whopping 12 times as Northside netted just 50 yards on the ground. And more than a couple of times, Bryant had elusive Griz quarterback Derrick Wise hemmed in behind the line of scrimmage only to have him scramble for gains.
Bryant also forced two turnovers as corner Andrew Hayes recovered both fumbles.
“Our defense played good,” James acknowledged, “other than a couple of third downs. We had penalties and we gave them a big pass but, other than that, they played good. We made them earn everything.
“Wise is a heck of a football player,” he mentioned. “We worked our tails off trying to catch that guy all night long.”
The big pass that James mentioned was a 50-yard completion from Wise to Dearon Robinson late in the game that cut into the Hornets’ 24-6 lead. Bryant got that one back in the final minute to secure the 13-point-plus victory.
That final touchdown nearly didn’t happen. A penalty against the Hornets, actually worked in their favor. Working to eat up the final 4:04 of the game, the Hornets drove from near midfield to the Northside 27. On a fourth-and-one, safety Cameron Vail, linebacker Jakob Neel and defensive end Austin Bailey — the jumbo package — came in to try to pick up the first down and keep the time-sapping drive going. A fumbled snap forced Vail to just fall on the ball for an apparent loss that would’ve turned the ball over on downs.
But, before the snap, there was a flag. A whistle that no one heard had been sounded, killing the play before it began. Thus, Northside couldn’t decline it. After the five-yard mark off, the Hornets gave it another try on fourth-and-6.
Hefley rolled left, evaded the crashing Northside defensive end and lofted a pass that Murray hauled in for the touchdown with :53.5 left.
Bryant built up a 21-0 lead in the first half before Northside could manage to cross the 50 on offense or pick up a first down other than one via penalty.
After the Grizzlies went three-and-out on the first possession of the game, Bryant cashed in good field position after a punt to take the lead. Scott caught a 7-yard pass then ran it on three consecutive plays to set up Hefley’s 22-yard touchdown strike to Randy Thomas, who made a spectacular catch, pinning the ball to his right shoulder as he crossed the goal line.
Martin Ramirez added the extra point.
Hayes recovered a fumble and the Hornets drove to the Northside 5 only to be denied the end zone. A 21-yard field goal attempt veered wide left.
The teams traded punts the rest of the first quarter. As a result, Bryant had a first down on its own 45 on their first possession of the second period. Scott ran it twice for a first down then, off play action, Hefley and Murray teamed up on a 45-yard touchdown pass.
Ramirez kicked it to 14-0.
Two plays later, Hayes recovered another fumble at the Northside 34. Scott ran it six plays in a row and scored from the 12, making it 21-0 with another PAT from Ramirez.
On the ensuing possession, Wise completed a 16-yard pass to Jordan Dilworth for the initial earned first down. On the next play, however, Nate Wallace dropped Wise for a loss.
The Grizzlies made up for it moments later on a screen pass to Jackson King. It picked up 23 yards. At the end of the play, the ball was jarred loose only to have Robinson cover it for Northside.
They eventually made it to the 12 but, on a third-and-6 there, linebacker Jakob Neel dropped Wise for a loss. With less than 30 seconds left in the half, Jose Paredes got the Grizzlies on the board with a 34-yard field goal.
Paredes kicked another field goal with 3:47 left in the third quarter. It came after Northside’s longest drive of the night, which stalled at the Bryant 4. The Hornets’ defense snuffed out three plays with Johnny Wallace, Nick Smith, Neel and Jake Wright making tackles.
Bryant got the ball back after the kickoff and ate up the final 3:47 of the quarter and the first 1:30 of the fourth with a 17-play drive from their own 20 to the Northside 11.
They wound up settling for a field goal as Ramirez found the mark from 30 yards out to make it 24-6.
The Grizzlies’ touchdown came with 4:04 left in the game. A try for 2 failed, setting up Bryant’s clinching TD drive.
With the snapping of the six-game losing streak to Northside, the Hornets salved some old wounds for a couple of the best teams Bryant ever fielded. Three of those six wins came in the playoffs. In 1999, the Hornets were 11-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state after 14 consecutive losing seasons. The Grizzlies intercepted seven passes and gut-punched the Hornets 14-0.
In 2004, the Hornets were 10-1 going into the second round of the playoff only to be denied by Northside and quarterback Kodi Burns, who later played for Auburn.
Those two teams are the only ones in Bryant football history reach double-figures in wins.
In 2011, the Hornets were an eight-win team and conference champs (just like ’99 and ’04) when they met the Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs and got out-scored 45-35.
So, for all the guys that played on those teams including current Hornets linebackers coach Travis Queck who was a safety-slash-linebacker on the ’04 team:
This one’s for you.