Kris King was airborne. No easy thing for a 5-7, 190-pound running back who usually goes through people instead of over them.
But all he needed was a yard and, with just 43.6 seconds left in the game, King got that yard for a touchdown as the Bryant Hornets came all the way back from a 20-0 halftime deficit to tie the Fayetteville Bulldogs. All that was left to do was kick an extra point and hold on.
It was up to sophomore kicker Grayson Scoles. With two PATs in the game, he had doubled his output for the season, as he served as the back-up to junior Martin Ramirez.
But Ramirez was unavailable for the game, away on a mission trip with his church youth group, and Scoles was pressed into duty.
He stroked it through the uprights to give the Bryant Hornets a 21-20 lead, their first of the game.
And, moments later, when a fourth-down scramble by Fayetteville quarterback Darius Bowers came up half a yard short at the Bulldogs’ 41, it was good for a victory as the Hornets advance to the Class 7A semifinals for the second year in a row.
This time, by the skin of their teeth.
Junior quarterback Ren Hefley, out since a mid-season broken clavicle, returned to lead the Hornets’ offense on the comeback trail, after they’d been shut out in the first half for the first time all season.
It’s a good thing the Hornets’ defense held Fayetteville to just 20 points in the first half. Any more and Bryant wouldn’t have been able to score enough for the victory.
Just. Keep. Playing.
It was the second time this season that the Hornets had rallied from behind to nip the Purple Dogs by a point. Their 38-37 overtime victory in week 2 was impressive enough. This time, the season hung in the balance and it wound up being Fayetteville, the two-time defending State champion, whose campaign concluded.
Ironically, it was the Bulldogs who were trying to milk the clock late in the game after the Hornets had cut the Fayetteville lead to 20-14. But with just under 3:50 to play, they were stopped at the Bryant 46 and Huxley Richardson, instead of Braydon Butler the usual punter, was called on to pooch kick the Hornets deep into their own end. But Richardson couldn’t handle the low snap. He scooped it up and got back to the line of scrimmage and no more. With 3:14 to go, the Hornets were 46 yards from a tie or a lead.
They got it done but not without some serious drama. Bryant had to convert three third-down situations to get there.
The first was a third-and-10 at the 46. Hefley threw to Brandon Murray who was hit short of the marker but fought to the point where the Fayetteville defender had to sling him forward to get him down. It was just enough for a first.
Moments later, it was third-and-10 at the 36 and Hefley, flushed from the pocket, hit Randy Thomas for 14 yards.
A play later, a pass interference penalty helped the Hornets, who were plagued by penalties themselves particularly in the first half. From the Fayetteville 11, the Hornets went to the ground to use some clock. Three runs by LaTavion Scott got the ball to the 1, the third on a third-down-and-3 from the 4.
Enter King to get the final yard.
“I’m very proud of them,” said a weary Bryant head coach Buck James as his assistants celebrated the win and his birthday with a little post-game cake. “These are great kids. They are really good kids. They just need a little dog in them when it’s time to compete. They’re pleasers. They really work hard. They try to do the best that they can all the time. They just have an issue, from time to time, with trying to get ready to play at a high caliber. If I could fix it, I would.”
Said Hornets defensive coordinator Darrell Burnett, “It was frustrating but it was a good win. We came out the second half and we just played. We played fast, played with energy. The energy started flowing after that (second-half) kickoff when Mike Jones got down there and made that tackle. The seniors stepped up and everybody else followed. That was great for us.”
Indeed, Jones started the second half with a big hit on Fayetteville return man Brooks Flannigan at the 20.
The Bulldogs managed a first down on a 16-yard pass from Bowers to Connor Flannigan. But, under pressure, Bowers threw a pair of incomplete passes and they were forced to punt.
Kicking into the wind, Butler hit a low liner that Jones picked up on the run at his 26 and ripped up the left sideline to the Fayetteville 48.
Three plays failed to pick up a first down but the Hornets went for it on fourth and Hefley hit Scott for 8 yards and a first. A 12-yard strike to Murray got it to the 16. Scott got it to the 7 then picked up a first down on a 1-yard lunge to the 6. From there, King got the call and scored.
Scoles added the extra point and the Hornets had life.
Fayetteville, in turn, was on the move, driving from the 20 to the Bryant 26. But a second-down pass was tipped by the Hornets Johnny Wallace and the deflection was plucked out of the air by Jake Wright.
The Hornets drove from their own 22 to the Fayetteville 46 where, on a fourth-and-2, Scott was stopped just short.
Again the Bulldogs were moving but, on the third play of the drive, Cameron Vail knocked the ball out of the grasp of big fullback Dan Hinton. The ball flew toward the Bryant end zone but was recovered by Nate Wallace at the 18.
An 82-yard drive followed with more drama. Hefley had to scramble for a yard to convert a third-and-1 at the Bryant 45. Later, on a fourth-and-3 at the 48, he fired a pass in to King between two defenders for 4 yards and a first down.
A pass interference penalty got them to the 29 but then they stalled. On a fourth-and-10, however, Hefley scrambled and found Murray at about the 15. He turned and sprinted to the end zone for a touchdown with 7:22 left to play.
Scoles added the extra point to keep them on schedule.
Aided by a pass interference against the Hornets, Fayetteville marched upfield. Consecutive fumbles were just barely retained by the Bulldogs. On third down, Bowers found Gray for 21 yards to the 50.
Nate Wallace stopped Bowers on first down then the quarterback was gang-tackled after a 3-yard scramble. A third-down pass fell incomplete and Richardson came on for the punt that never was.
“At the half, we didn’t make a whole lot of adjustments, we just came out and executed the offense,” said Hornets offensive coordinator Kirk Bock. “And we told them, if we execute the offense, we’re going to play next week. If we don’t, we won’t.
“I didn’t think they were going to score anymore,” he said of Fayetteville. “We started executing, got some confidence and it snowballed.”
The first half, Hornets fans (and coaches) had to be wondering who that was out there disguised as the Bryant Hornets.
Fayetteville scored in two plays.
“We kind of changed everything up after the first series, just because we sometimes had three or four linebackers on the field,” Burnett related. “We knew we wanted to take away two of their guys (receivers Gray and Kris Mulinga). They were trying to get other match-ups so we went from our base personnel to pretty much Dime, where we brought (defensive back) Allen Coleman in to play linebacker. We rotated (safety) Mike Jones in. Sometimes we took one of the middle linebackers out and put in another safety for more speed, guys that can cover.”
The key to the whole thing, of course, was when Richardson came in after that first score and missed the extra point. Fayetteville head coach Billy Dawson never tried to make that up in the first half because his team was dominating on defense.
The Hornets managed just one first down until a late drive after the Bulldogs had built the 20-0 lead. Fayetteville intercepted two passes.
The Bryant defense held Fayetteville on a fourth-down on the Bulldogs’ second possession, then forced a three-and-out. They tried a field goal when their fourth possession stalled. The 48-yard attempt with the wind at his back was miss-hit by Richardson and fell short and to the left.
The Hornets kept going three-and-out. Gray returned a punt by Vail 18 yards to the Bryant 48 and the Bulldogs scored moments later on a 15-yard pass from Bowers to Flannigan.
An interception set up a 33-yard field goal try by Richardson but the Hornets’ Andrew Hayes blocked it.
But another interception set up Fayetteville’s third score, a 19-yard run by Bowers with 4:07 left in the half.
In turn, the Hornets appeared to have something going but penalties sidetracked them including a pair of holding penalties.
“The thing is, the first half, as bad as the score was, we missed seven sacks and dropped two interceptions,” noted Burnett. “We were taking poor angles and, really, tackling is an attitude. You’ve got to have a mindset and the pride to knock someone down every time you get a chance to. But we’ll get that fixed.”
“I told them I was embarrassed for them,” James said of his halftime talk. “We should be embarrassed. In such a big high-caliber game, we just didn’t play like we are capable of playing in the first half.
“There really wasn’t much adjusting,” he related. “We really did the same things in the second half. You know, they just played football and when they play football, they’re pretty good. But when they go out there and sleepwalk through it against the caliber of competition we’ve been playing the last few weeks, we’re not good enough to go out there and do that.
“I thought our offensive line didn’t play well the first half,” the coach said. “I thought our defensive line didn’t play well the first half.
“People will say it was because we had the bye week and I don’t believe that,” he said. “We didn’t have a bye week before we played Conway or the second half against North Little Rock or Cabot or whatever. You can go back game after game, this is our M.O. They work hard enough to do it. They’re in shape enough to do it. They’re strong enough to do it. But when they don’t focus and concentrate and play hard, it doesn’t happen.
“If I could fix it, I would’ve already done it,” he declared. “But we’re going to go to work and try to do a better job.”
Said Bock, “I think the game may have gotten a little big in the first half. Once we came out in the second half and we punched it in, we kind of turned that aside and realized we can do it.”
James sent the team back on the field with a scenario for victory.
“I told them, I think the defense can hold them to one touchdown and we’ll win the game 35-28,” he recounted. “I told them we could win the game. We just had to play football. And they went out there and did what they’re capable of doing and put it all together.
“Ren got hot, we made some plays, the offensive line gave him time and he was able to escape enough to make things happen and it changed the momentum of the game.”
Looking ahead to the trip to Bentonville on Black Friday, James said, “We tend to play better on the road because we have (the players). It’s hard to get ready at home because there are so many distractions. It’s something we’ve got to get fixed for sure, if we want to continue in this thing.”
The victory was the 28th, best all time, for the Bryant senior class. It improved the Hornets to 10-1 on the season, joining the 2004 and 1999 teams as the only ones in school history with double-digit victories in a season.