Hornets return home to tangle with Rockets

File photo by Kevin Nagle

Editor’s note: Tonight’s Bryant-Catholic game will be broadcast at 93.7 FM and 690 AM Fox Sports Arkansas with pre-game at 6:30 p.m., and live streamed by Fidelity Local 6 here

After Zak Wallace and the Benton Panthers piled up 269 yards rushing in the Salt Bowl to open the 2017 football season, the Bryant Hornets defense has held the next three opponents to little more than half of that combined (155 yards or an average of 52 yards a game) on the ground.

This week when the Hornets host the Little Rock Catholic Rockets, they will face perhaps the sternest test since Wallace with tailback Samy Johnson who rushed for nearly 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns as a sophomore all-State pick in 2016. That included 111 yards and three scores against the Hornets. Though Bryant prevailed 41-27, it was 20-20 after Johnson’s second TD run midway through the third quarter.

The Hornets then went on a 21-0 spree before Johnson’s final touchdown in what turned out to be a turning point for the 2016 Hornets and, by extension, the 2017 team. After a faltering 2-2 start, Bryant finished the year 7-2 and has started this season 4-0 with a ranking of No. 2 in the state.

Already, this season, the Hornets have earned two landmark victories, defeating both Fayetteville and last week’s foe, Fort Smith Northside, for the first time ever (though it was just the sixth time to play Fayetteville since 1985 and the seventh time to play Northside since 1999).

Bryant head coach Buck James didn’t know about it being the first win over the Grizzlies until after the game.

“Doing it at their place,” he noted, “and, I thought, we did it in a physical manner as well as a precision manner, that says a lot about our football team. Our kids played hard. But we don’t always play extremely well. That’s high school football this time of year, for sure. But I thought we did a lot of good things, our effort was tremendous. We played with a lot of speed and power. And I think we imposed our will on them.”

That included putting a damper on Northside’s nifty quarterback Derrick Wise who netted just 37 yards on 26 attempts, which includes sacks.

“That’s saying something because their quarterback is special,” James said. “He’s lit up a lot of people.

“But our defense keeps getting better each and every week,” he noted. “And that’s what we expect. We didn’t play well week one but I think our opponent had a lot to do with that as well. (Defensive coordinator) Coach (Darrell) Burnett and his staff have worked hard and, the biggest thing is, we’ve started to figure out what it takes to get off the field on third down.”

The Hornets’ defense has gone more and more to the 3-4 set of late. The line has been a rotation of Nate Wallace, Johnny Wallace, Catrell Wallace and Austin Bailey at the ends with Kajuan Robinson, Bryce Thomas and Cameron Davis inside to go with a linebacker rotation of Jakob Neel, Nick Smith, Antonio Todd, Jake Wright, Brooks Ellis and Allen Coleman.

The Rockets have more on offense than Johnson and a big offensive line. Quarterback Jake James is a good run/pass weapon with tight end Adam Shepherd leading a quality receiving corps.

“We’ve got to stop their great tailback,” Buck James acknowledged. “We’ve also got to keep them out of descent field position because they’re in scoring position anytime they cross the 40 with their great kicker.”

The kicker is Christopher Elser, one of the best in the state.

“It’s a big challenge,” the coach related. “They’re a good football team. They’ve either won every game or been right in every game.”

The Rockets opened the season with a 44-7 thumping of Sylvan Hills and a 34-17 victory over Jacksonville before losing a heartbreaker at Jonesboro, 28-26. In their conference opener against Cabot last Friday, they led early and were very close through three quarters before the Panthers wore them down in the final period on the way to a 42-20 victory.

In Bryant’s 31-12 win at Northside, the Hornets leaned on the defensive effort that included two turnovers and nine lost-yardage plays with six sacks.

Offensively, they took what they were given by the Northside defense and rushed for 210 yards including 172 by junior running back LaTavion Scott behind their stout offensive line. Only 15 passes were thrown and seven completed, a season low, but three of them went for touchdowns.

Catholic’s defense is less experienced than the offense but returns five starters led by defensive end Peter Fitz, linebackers Nic Gonzalez and Trever Karther, Elser at corner and William Plafcan at safety.

“Hopefully, we can still make the field 50 yards long and 50 yards wide,” said Coach James. “I think that’s the key for our offense. I think we’ve got to be balanced. We’ve definitely got to run the football then we’ve got to be able to be fast-strike and do the things that causes defenses problems.”

Quarterback Ren Hefley, who had his first breakout game as a sophomore against the Rockets in 2016, is completing 62 percent of his passes and is just 84 yards short of a 1,000 for the season with 11 touchdowns. Senior Brandon Murray has nine receptions for 282 yards (31.3 yards per catch) and five of those TDs. Junior Randy Thomas has nine catches for 170 yards and three touchdowns.

Scott leads the team in receptions with 12 and will need just 21 yards to go over 500 yards rushing so far this season. He’s averaging nearly five yards a try.

Tonight is Mass Band Night with the entire band program from seventh through 12th grade performing together before the game.

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