Hornets overcome slow start to earn first conference win over Rockets
EDITOR’S NOTE: Because the look back at each day in Bryant athletic history has been so favorably received during the time when there was no sports during the COVID-19 shutdown, BryantDaily.com will continueposting past stories of Bryant athletics either posted on BryantDaily.com (from 2009 to the present) or published in the Bryant Times (from 1998 to 2008).
Photos by Kevin Nagle
LITTLE ROCK — When, on their first drive of the night, the Little Rock Catholic Rockets marched 80 yards in 14 plays to take a 7-0 lead, the team that Bryant Hornets head coach Paul Calley said he got back last week looked a little like it got away again.
But when the defense got to the sideline, assistant head coach Steve Griffith proceeded to read the proverbial riot act to his players.[more]
“No intensity, no effort,” Griffith recalled after the game with a little of his own. “We had a meeting of the minds and decided we were going to get after it from there forward.”
“I was scared to death,” head coach Paul Calley allowed. “(Catholic) took it to us on that opening drive and our guys looked shell-shocked. Coach Griff started chewing and I ran down to the other end to get away from it.”
From that point on, the Bryant defense set the tone for the game with some bone-rattling tackles while limiting the Rockets at every turn. Catholic couldn’t manage another first down the rest of the first half then most of the third quarter. After accumulating 85 yards of offense and six first downs on that first foray, the Rockets needed the rest of the game to double those numbers.
Sparked by that defensive effort, the Hornets rolled up 31 unanswered points to dismiss the Rockets, 31-7, in the 7A/6A-Central Conference opener for both teams.
“I was very proud of the way we responded,” Griffith said of the defense’s play after his talk with them. “After the first drive, we came out and played like we expect Bryant Hornets to play. We played extremely hard, we played smart, we had guys where they were supposed to be and doing the things they’re supposed to do.
“After the first drive, we tackled well,” he added. “We did not tackle well on the first drive but, after that, we nosed up on people, knocked people back. We had guys up front penetrating, linebackers getting in the pass zones and tipping balls, secondary guys breaking on the football and doing things you expect them to do.”
The win improved the Hornets to 3-1 overall this season and set up a showdown with 4-0 Van Buren for Homecoming on Oct. 1. Catholic fell to 1-3 going into a trip to Cabot.
“Special teams came up big,” Calley acknowledged. “They gave us great field position. The defense kept us in great field position and gave us opportunities with a couple of turnovers.”
On special teams, the Hornets’ Tyler Freshour blocked a punt, Tanner Tolbert partially blocked one and Travis Royal hurried one resulting in a short kick.
Strong safety Holden Chavis had an interception which set up Bryant’s final touchdown. Aaron Bell picked off a pass off a ball tipped by linebacker Collin Chapdelaine and that set up a score. Plus, Dillon Winfrey had a punt return for 43 yards that almost went for a touchdown.
Offensively, sophomore quarterback Hayden Lessenberry completed 10 of 13 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns. And, despite managing just 6 yards net rushing in the first half, the Hornets finished with 112 yards on 38 running plays, led by Karon Dismuke’s 49 yards on 13 tries and Dylan Pritchett’s 42 yards on seven totes. Dismuke ran for a score and Stephen Clark ran one in and caught a pass for another touchdown.
“They do a lot of twist stunts,” Calley explained in reference to Catholic’s tough defense against the run. “They’re hard to prepare for. In the past, when we had run the ball against them, it was feast or famine. It’s either going to be a big play or a lost-yardage play. That was the story early tonight.
“We knew we were going to have to throw the ball to win,” he added. “We knew we weren’t going to be consistent enough on the ground. I thought once we got a little lead and we started running away from (Catholic defensive end Hayden Carman) — we couldn’t block him, he was just huge. I thought we had a big team but, no, not compared to those guys. They were huge and they beat us up up front early on.
“We figured out where we needed to go and how we needed to attack it,” the coach added. “We felt like the fullback was going to be there in the second half just because of those stunts they run inside. A quick hitter like that, it negates that twist stunt if you can catch them just right. We hit a couple with Dylan.
“Then we tried running weakside stuff,” Calley explained. “We tried early on running counters but they were getting too much penetration. We were trying to block them down and kick them out but we couldn’t do it. One guy was slipping through. They were two-gapping us, sending two people through the same gap. When you do that, it’s a gamble.”
Bryant didn’t respond immediately to the Catholic touchdown drive. The Hornets were forced to punt after picking up one first down.
The Rockets got the ball back at their own 27. Three plays later, they were still at the 27, resulting in a punt.
Spurred by a pass interference penalty, the Hornets drove for a tying score. Three runs by Dismuke reached the 34 where, on first down, Lessenberry dropped a perfect pass into the arms of Tolbert who had run past two Rocket defenders along the right sideline. He never slowed down as he reached the end zone.
Jace Denker’s extra point tied the game less than a minute into the second quarter.
The defense continued its resurgence. After Catholic quarterback Zach Conque completed a 9-yard pass to Allen Mays to set up a second-and-1, the Rockets still couldn’t get a first down. Cortez Williams and James Kidd dropped Thomas for a loss on second down then Hunter Mayall knifed through the make another tackle for a loss, forcing a Catholic punt.
Mayall and fellow linebacker Jacob Brady led the Hornets with 10 tackles each. Kidd was in on nine with Josh Hampton, Matt Jones, Holden Chavis and Chapdelaine getting in on eight each. In all, the Hornets had nine tackles for losses.
And the defense had to come through again right after the punt which was muffed allowing Zach Boyce to recover for the Rockets at the Bryant 47. Three plays later, however (including a stop for a loss by Ben Seale and Chapdelaine), the Rockets were punting again.
Taking advantage of a punt-snap that had a little arch in it, the Hornets went after the kick and Tolbert partially blocked it. As a result, Bryant was back on offense at its own 31.
They faced a third-and-14 from the 27 moments later, when Lessenberry found Clark out the backfield for 32 yards to the Catholic 41. It was kind of an incredible play by the young quarterback. Rushed, he rolled to his right, stepped around a tackler or two then reversed field and found Clark all alone toward the other sideline.
“He made some great throws,” Calley said of Lessenberry. “That was a heady play but I’m afraid if he keeps doing that we’re not going to have him for very long. Somebody’s going to take him out. He’s going to have to learn. It was a great play. I’m glad he did it. But he’s going to have to cut it down a little bit if we’re going to keep him healthy because he’s going to play some people that will hurt him.”
A play later, Lessenberry faked a handoff to Clark, looked off the defense then threw down the middle to his running back who was behind the secondary. The result was a 36-yard touchdown that put the Hornets ahead to stay.
Catholic’s ensuing possession began at its 23. Conque dropped to pass with Jones pressuring. The senior tackle, despite beind held, sacked the quarterback for a loss of 6. The holding penalty, however, cost the Rockets 16 yards back to the 7.
They eventually had to punt from inside the 15 and when Royal pressured punter Jordan Hartnedy, he shanked the kick and Bryant got it 35 yards away from another score.
The Hornets, however, were unable to overcome a holding penalty of their own on the resulting possession. As it turned out, that was the only penalty Bryant was flagged for.
It was 14-7 at the half. After giving up 85 yards on the first possession, the Hornets had held Catholic to just 20 yards of offense the rest of the half.
At the start of the third quarter, the Rockets got the ball and continued to struggle. When they tried to throw for a first down on a third-and-2 at the 35, Conque’s quick pass to Weston Holloway was blown up by Hampton and Mayall after a gain of a yard.
And when Hartnedy dropped back to punt this time, Bryant’s Tyler Freshour broke through and blocked the kick. Tolbert covered it at the Rockets’ 6.
Though the Catholic defense rose up to keep the Hornets out of the end zone, Denker came on and booted a 20-yard field goal to create a two-score advantage.
The Rockets’ frustrations on offense continued. In three subsequent plays, they lost 3 yards, resulting in another punt. This time, Winfrey fielded the kick inside the Bryant 40. He broke the return for 43 yards to the Catholic 20.
Though the Hornets were unable to take advantage as Denker missed a 34-yard field goal attempt, the field position continued to hamper Catholic. The Rockets only had one possession all night that started beyond their own 30. Their average starting field position was their own 21.
And it wasn’t long before the Hornets had the ball back. On a second down play from the 22, Conque’s pass over the middle was tipped by Chapdelaine and intercepted by Aaron Bell at the Rockets 38.
Bryant needed just three running plays to find the end zone again as the offensive line of center Justin Rauch, guards Landon Pickett and Steven Lecamu and tackles Austin Johnson and Jordan Murdock started to wear on the Rockets’ front. Pritchett slashed for 16 yards on his first carry of the night after starting fullback Marcus Harris was helped off the field with an ankle injury. Clark raced around right end for 20 yards to the 2. He scored from there on the next play. With Denker’s PAT, Bryant led 24-7.
On the ensuing possession, Catholic, which had six first downs in the opening drive, finally got its second on a 10-yard run by Thomas. A play later, Conque and Holloway connected for 27 yards to the Bryant 39.
The Rockets reached the 25 and appeared to be on their way to a second touchdown when Chavis stepped in front of a Conque throw down the left seam. On the run, the Bryant safety returned the ball from the 15 out to the 47.
With 11:49 left, Bryant began its march to a final touchdown. The Hornets faced a fourth-and-1 at the Catholic 44. Tolbert came on to punt but pulled the ball down and made a nifty run to pick up the first down even with the Rockets suspicious of a fake.
Four plays later, Dismuke skirted left end for a touchdown from 9 yards out. Denker put the finishing touches on the score with his fourth extra point.
Catholic’s last possession reached the Bryant 34 but along the way, the Rockets twice tried one-blocker bubble screens. But, in both cases, a wide receiver was left trying to block Mayall. The linebacker discarded the blocker and smacked the receiver as he caught the ball, knocking it loose as he planted the intended receiver.
Once the Rockets managed to get to the 34, Brady dropped Thomas for a loss on third down.
Conque struggled to find open receivers downfield against the Bryant secondary most of the night. He usually ended up having to dump off a pass to a running back in the flat or tossing a short throw to a receiver running a drag route over the middle. On fourth and 9 at the Bryant 42, that drag route was all Conque could find. And when tight end Scott Scruggs made the catch he was decked immediately and the Hornets took over on downs with 3:49 left.
Bryant ran out the rest of the clock with Pritchett, Clark and Dismuke contributing positive yardage.
BRYANT 31, LITTLE ROCK CATHOLIC 7
Score by quarters
BRYANT 0 14 10 7 — 31
LR Catholic 7 0 0 0 — 7
LR CATHOLIC — Conque 1 run (Ashburn kick), 4:40
BRYANT — Tolbert 34 pass from Lessenberry (Denker kick), 11:36
BRYANT — Clark 36 pass from Lessenberry (Denker kick), 6:34
BRYANT — Denker 20 yard field goal, 7:46
BRYANT — Clark 2 run (Denker kick), 3:22
BRYANT — Dismuke 9 run (Denker kick), 7:11
First downs 14 11
Rushes-yds 38-112 30-99
Passing 10-13-0 15-28-2
Passing yds 167 98
Punts-avg. 4-45.8 6-20.2
Fumbles-lost 2-1 1-0
Penalties-yds 1-10 9-63
Rushing: BRYANT, Dismuke 13-49, Pritchett 7-42, Clark 11-37, Tolbert 1-9, Lessenberry 6-(-25); LR CATHOLIC, Thomas 20-54, Conque 10-45.
Passing (C-A-I-Y): BRYANT, Lessenberry 10-13-0-167; LR CATHOLIC, Conque 15-28-2-98.
Receiving: BRYANT, Clark 4-87, Nichols 2-24, Winfrey 2-13, Tolbert 1-34, Elmore 1-9; LR CATHOLIC, Holloway 6-44, Scruggs 4-29, Mays 2-17, Thomas 2-3, Chilton 1-5.