LITTLE ROCK — From the git-go, everything seemed to be just a bit out of whack Friday night when the Bryant Hornets visited the Little Rock McClellan Crimson Lions.
From the well-intentioned but unique ceremony that delayed the start of the game to acknowledge the passing of Bryant’s sophomore Ray Davis that included both teams and the fans from the stands meeting at the middle of the field, to the skipping of the National Anthem with the McClellan choir poised to sing it, to the complete lack of rhythm to the game, mostly because the two teams combined for 24 penalties worth 243 yards — there was just no flow.
The Hornets, however, settled in enough in the second half to outscore the Lions 17-0 on the way to a 27-8 victory. In two games so far, Bryant has outscored its opponents 44-0 in the second half.
“It’s safe to say that we did not play very well,” stated Bryant head coach Paul Calley. “Every time we did something good, we did something bad it seemed like.”
The Hornets were coming off an emotional win over arch-rival Benton in front of over 34,000 people at War Memorial Stadium. That came days after the tragedy involving their teammate.
“I knew, playing after the Salt Bowl and all the events over the past two weeks, we wouldn’t be mentally where we needed to be,” Calley said. “And we weren’t.
“On the bright side, we can correct the mistakes and we will continue to get better,” he added.
Senior quarterback Gunnar Burks distinguished himself with a breakout game passing, completing 17 of 21 for 200 yards. Seven different Hornets caught those aerials led by Aaron Orender who had seven grabs for 91 yards and Landon Smith with four for 47.
“That is encouraging,” Calley said. “And (Gunnar) was under duress all night. We didn’t pick up blitzes very well. We seemed to have tunnel vision for some reason. We worked it all week. We expected pressure. We knew, any passing situation, we would get backers through gaps and we got it. We didn’t pick it up. A couple of times, they made us pull up on sprint-outs and they got us from the backside off the edge.
“In the run game, several times they out-quicked us up front. We made some mental mistakes. We were supposed to be helping and certain situations, we let them go. We had some low snaps. You can still execute with a little bit higher snap but when it’s low, it throws the timing of the play off.”
Calley lauded the play of the defense, particularly in the second half when McClellan mustered a net of just 24 yards of total offense.
Jaelyn Jones led the Hornets with seven tackles to go with two interceptions, one at the end of each half. Mario Waits made six stops including three for losses. Madre Dixon made five stops including two for losses. Devon Howard and Cameron Vail were in on five tackles each.
“The main thing is, we got the W,” Calley acknowledged. “We did what we had to do to win the ballgame. And I’m not taking anything away from McClellan. I thought they played really hard. I thought they tackled well defensively. Offensively, in the past, they’ve done a lot of things to hurt themselves. They didn’t turn the ball over until late. They gave us no gifts. We had to earn everything.”
The game was also highlighted by the work of Bryant’s junior kicker Hayden Ray, who not only converted on all three touchdowns but drilled a pair of field goals too, one from 39 yards and another from 25.
The Hornets opened the game with a convincing touchdown march of 69 yards in 11 plays, using up almost five minutes of the clock. Burks who hit his first six passes, completed two during the drive, both to Orender. The first picked up 8 yards and the second broke for 20 but, most of that was negated by a holding penalty downfield.
DeAmonte Terry broke a speed sweep for 15 yards and, later, for 14. From the 12, Cameron Coleman crashed 10 yards to set up Savonte Turner’s TD plunge.
Bryant used all three backs about equally. Turner had 13 carries for 48 yards, Terry 11 for 47 and Coleman, with a few extra runs late in the game, finished with 52 yards on eight tries.
With a 7-0 lead, the Hornets covered the kickoff well, holding Pierre Strong, the Lions’ 4.4 sprinter, inside the 15.
Dixon stopped Strong for a loss on first down then Waits got to Jaylin Cunningham for a loss back to the 4. After quarterback Dalvion Childs threw incomplete, a procedure penalty moved the ball back to the 2 for a punt.
Childs one-stepped it out of the end zone and it looked like the Hornets would be set up with great field position and an opportunity to double the margin. But the ball got away from Phillip Isom-Green on the return and the Lions recovered.
McClellan was able to pick up a first down on a fourth-down run by Strong to get into Bryant territory, the drive stalled and the Lions punted the Hornets back to their own 20.
Burks passed to Quinton Royal who broke it for 16 yards then Orender grabbed a 23-yarder as the Hornets pushed up the field. A 10-yard completion to Austin Kelly and a 7-yard strike to Jordan Gentry had them at the McClellan 21. On the next play, however, the Lions’ blitz got to Burks.
Still, with a clutch third-down completion to Terry, the Hornets overcame the sack. Terry reached the 8 but a holding penalty pushed it back to the 18. A procedure penalty had them 23 yards away from paydirt.
They eventually faced a fourth-and-3 at the 11. Terry appeared to pick up the first but another hold negated the gain and then some. But Ray came on and coolly knocked in the 39-yard field goal to make it 10-0 with 7:43 left in the half.
Two big plays got the Lions on the board. After Strong was stuffed for losses on consecutive snaps, Childs threw one up for grabs deep down the middle and Cunningham came down with it at midfield.
A personal foul penalty on the next play pushed the Lions back to their own 43 but that’s when Strong broke free and raced for a touchdown. Raoshun Young ran in the two-point conversion and it was 10-8.
Another holding penalty undermined the next Bryant series. The defense forced a McClellan punt when Childs was dropped for a loss by Vail and Najee Hunt to foil a third-and-1 play. This time Jones was back to return the kick but, again, the ball got loose. The reason was that one of the McClellan coverage players bumped into him and didn’t give him a proper chance to field it. Nonetheless, a McClellan player picked up the loose ball and ran it in for an apparent go-ahead touchdown.
But the return was negated by the interference penalty.
Though the Hornets retained possession, they went three-and-out with Burks getting sacked twice.
After a punt, the Lions final series of the half ended with Jones’ first interception.
“You set the tone,” Calley said. “We came out our first defensive series, get a three-and-out, then we muff the punt when we would have great field position. The second quarter, we started making mistakes, got several holding penalties then we had several motion penalties.”
Another oddity, the Hornets got the ball first in both halves with McClellan choosing to take the win when given the option to start the game.
To open the third quarter, Bryant drove to the McClellan 4, aided by a roughing the passer penalty and a personal foul. Burks completed short passes to Turner and Orender along the way. But a fumble cost them 5 yards on second down. On third down, Burks rolled left and appeared to have a receiver open in the back of the end zone but McClellan safety John Foster knocked it away at the last second.
Ray came on and hit the 25-yard field goal to make it 13-8.
The teams traded punts until, with 3:34 left in the third, the Hornets drove from their own 23 to a touchdown. Burks capped it off with a plunge from the 1. Earlier, he converted the lone third-down play of the drive with a 6-yard keeper. He was 4 of 4 passing on the drive. Quick outs to Orender for 6 then 9 yards set up the big play of the march. With Smith running a quick out, Orender drove upfield and found himself behind the defense. Burks got it to him for 26 yards, setting up the TD run.
McClellan was able to pick up a first down, aided by a Bryant penalty but the Lions had a pair of them marked off against them later in the possession. Isom-Green and Waits made tackles for losses too and the Lions ended up having to punt out of their own end zone.
Bryant’s final scoring drive included more penalties, a pass interference against McClellan and another hold against Bryant. But a 31-yard pass play from Burks to Smith helped the Hornets get into scoring position. Turner dashed for 7 yards the 8 more after Burks and Smith combined on a 10-yard completion. Burks capped the drive with a 3-yard run and Ray’s PAT set the final score.
McClellan drove to the Bryant 39 but Gregg Williams and Peyton Robertson foiled a shuffle pass to Strong. Devon Davis made a nice play to knock down a long pass and, on fourth down, Jones made his second interception with 2:29 left.
Behind the running of Coleman and Brandon Murray, Bryant ate that up in five plays.
Next Friday, the Hornets will make their home debut when they play their final non-conference game against Little Rock Central.