For the first time since 2009 the Bryant Hornets are off to a 5-0 start as they ground out a 30-10 win over the short-handed Little Rock Catholic Rockets Friday night.
If they make it to 6-0 with a win at Alma next Friday, it’ll be the first time that’s happened since the historic 1999 season when the team went 11-0 before losing in the second round of the State playoffs. Thus it would be just the second time in the history of the program, dating back to 1949.
They’ll have to earn it, on the road against a tough 4-1 Alma Airedales team that dismissed the Siloam Springs Panthers Friday, 41-24. Siloam had previously been ranked the top defense in the 7A/6A-Central Conference.
And it won’t get any easier. The teams the Hornets have defeated so far have a composite record of 10-15 this season. The five teams left on the regular-season schedule are a combined 17-8 so far including a 5-0 Greenwood team, which the Hornets will take on in two weeks on the road.
“At this point, it feels good to be 5-0,” allowed Hornets head coach Paul Calley. “We’ve played just well enough to win. And I guess it’s going to be that way from here on out.
“I think Alma’s going to give us the best test so far,” he asserted. “They’re going to be well-coached. They can throw it and they can run it. They’re diverse on offense and they’re going to be sound on defense. They’re going to play hard-nosed football.”
And, as has been the case in each of the Hornets’ wins since the season-opening 37-13 win over Benton, Calley expressed concern about his team’s play in the win over Catholic. Of course, all good coaches are constantly looking for ways for their teams to improve.
One week, it was 11 penalties, another it’s a lack of execution in one phase of the game or another. On Friday, for one thing, it was turnovers. The Hornets lost three fumbles. Another thing was the fact that they were only able to complete 4 of 10 passes and two of those were short-range shuffle passes in the backfield. And, on the other side of the ball, the fact that Catholic, with a third-string quarterback, sophomore Jake James, completed 11 of 16 throws for 158 yards and a touchdown.
“If we continue making the mistakes that we have made the past five weeks, we will not beat Alma,” Calley declared. “I said it and I mean it.
“It’s frustrating,” he continued, adding of his players, “I don’t think any of them do it on purpose. But the way that we approach game preparation, as in ‘I’m focused and intense and ready to play,’ we’re just loosie-goosey, have fun, everything’s a party. Not all of them, of course, but a lot of them.”
The winning formula for the Hornets, however, was running the football and stopping the run. Both are things that have been pretty consistent this season.
On offense, even though the Rockets were lining up seven, eight, nine defenders in the box (within eight yards of the line of scrimmage), Bryant blasted, slashed and scrambled for a season-high 371 yards including 150 from junior DeAmonte Terry and 117 from senior quarterback Gunnar Burks.
“There are certain things we can do, certain things we can’t do,” Calley said. “They (opponents) know it and we know it and we’re still able to do it. (Catholic) wanted to make us throw it. They were going to make us beat them throwing the football. But we were still able to run.”
On defense, Bryant came into the game, the stingiest against the run in the Central Conference, allowing just an average of 90 yards on the ground thus far. They only added to that, allowing 48 to Catholic on 33 rushing attempts, despite the unexpected deployment of a power Wildcat offense in which the Rockets lined up with two tight ends and two blocking backs trying to clear the way for running backs Lance Harville-Thomas and Monroe McKay.
The Bryant defensive coaches made adjustments on the fly then re-adjusted at halftime to counter the changes they anticipated the Rockets’ staff making. That and the fact that the Hornets built up a 23-3 lead by late in the third quarter pretty much forced Catholic to abandon that tactic.
“I thought the defensive line played really well tonight,” Calley acknowledged. “We got a lot of pressure on the quarterback.”
Defensive tackle Mario Waits led the Hornes with 11 tackles including four for losses and a sack. He also combined with end Madre Dixon to tackle Harville-Thomas in the end zone for a safety. Dixon finished with nine stops including three for losses and a sack.
Linebacker Devon Alpe, safety Jaelyn Jones and linebacker/safety Phillip Isom-Green were in on eight stops each. Tackle Peyton Robertson and end Cameron Murray made seven stops including a sack apiece. Murray also swatted down a pass.
And the Hornets countered the turnovers by forcing three in turn. Jones and Quinton Royal had interceptions and Pierce Finney recovered a fumble.
Before the game, Rockets’ senior all-State quarterback Andre Sale was warming up as if he might play. Sale led the team to a season-opening win over North Little Rock then he and the Rockets played Cabot (still unbeaten) to overtime. But Sale was injured late in that game, suffering a hyper-extended left elbow (though word was that he’d broken the arm). He hasn’t played since and Catholic has now lost three in a row.
But Sale did not play. It is hoped he’ll be available next week against Russellville.
As it was, James got the start and the Rockets used the Wildcat. And they went three-and-out on the first possession.
With good field position after their punt, the Hornets scored. The 60-yard drive in 10 plays was sparked by Terry’s 13-yard run. On a fourth-down at the Rockets’ 41, Burks kept on a quarterback draw for 11 yards and, on the next play, Chace Henson picked up 12 on a speed sweep. Burks eventually scored from the 6 and Hayden Ray knocked in the extra point.
The teams traded punts but, late in the first quarter, the Hornets fumbled a return and the Rockets recovered. They drove to the Bryant 16 but Waits dropped Harville-Thomas for a loss and though they got some of that back with a swing pass from James to McKay, the Hornets held and Catholic settled for a 29-yard field goal by Christopher Elser.
The Hornets came right back with a drive that picked up 79 of the 80 yards needed for another score. The key plays included a 33-yard completion from Burks to Austin Kelly and a fourth-down run by Burks to keep the march going. A play later, Terry carried around left end from the 11 and nearly got inside the pylon for a touchdown but was ruled out of bounds at the 3. Burks kept from there but, trying desperately to get into the end zone, he was hit on a spin move and the ball came free. Though it appeared that he had stretched out to get the ball across the goal-line before the ball came loose, Catholic’s Drake Ederlin recovered at 1.
Lined up in their power running set, the Rockets tried to nudge it out from there but, on first down, Dixon and Waits, with Alpe right there as well, crashed through to drop him for a safety.
Up 9-3, the Hornets got the ball back with a free kick and Terry broke a 42-yard return to the Catholic 42. Burks scrambled for 28 yards and, on the next play, Cameron Coleman powered past and over the Rockets defense for a 14-yard TD. Ray booted it to 16-3.
And the defense forced another three-and-out but the Hornets were flagged for roughing the punter as Murray just brushed the kicker’s right shoulder. Though given new life, the Rockets couldn’t pick up a first down and punter Seth Hartnedy was soon back on the field. Bryant ate up the final 1:33 of the half.
On the first play of the second half, the Hornets suffered another turnover. Again, fighting for every yard, this time Coleman was stripped of the ball and Catholic’s Orlando Henley recovered.
James was sacked by Robertson and Murray, then Robertson and Hayden Knowles stopped Harville-Thomas for a loss. On third-and-17, however, the Rockets got off the hook when James threw to Justin Temple for 40 yards to the Bryant 12.
Catholic went no further, though, and Elser came on to try a 32-yard field goal that bounced off the right upright and fell away, no good.
The Rockets’ next possession picked up a first down before Royal made his interception at the Bryant 44 and returned it to the Catholic 38. A play later, Burks turned in an eye-popping run, slipping a pair of shoestring tackle attempts, shuffling to avoid another tackler and tip-toeing to pick up some extra blocking downfield before sprinting into the right corner of the end zone. Ray kicked the PAT and it was 23-3 with 3:51 left in the third quarter.
Four plays into the Rockets’ subsequent possession, Jones made his interception.
Coleman rumbled 25 yards and, later, Burks passed to Aaron Orender for 15 yards to convert a fourth-and-8, getting to the Catholic 22.
The drive stalled there, however, undermined by a fumbled snap on a third-and-13.
Catholic took over and drove for its lone touchdown, a 42-yard strike from James to Temple with 7:47 left. Elser made it 23-10.
But it didn’t stay that close long. Though Terry had a 41-yard kickoff return into Catholic territory mostly negated by an illegal block, pushing the Hornets back to their own 10, on the second play of the series, Terry lashed off left tackle and sprinted 86 yards for the final touchdown with 6:47 left.
After that, both teams had to punt. Though Catholic’s kick was muffed, the Hornets were able to maintain possession. And Bryant’s kick was short. The ball ricocheted off the shoulder pads of a Rockets player and Finney recovered. The Hornets’ reserves ran out the final 1:28 with Henson contributing a 13-yard run.