BENTON — The prospects for the Bryant Hornets freshman team in the battle with the rival Benton Panthers for the Central Arkansas Junior High Conference championship Tuesday night, didn’t look so bright at the start.
Their first play from scrimmage, a run by quarterback Randy Thomas, resulted in a loss. On the next play, the Hornets were stuffed at the line of scrimmage by the aggressive eight-man front of the Panthers. A third-down play resulted in an interception by Benton’s Peyton Pallette.
It didn’t go much better for the Hornets’ defense when, on the Panthers’ first snap, quarterback Colen Morrow galloped 62 yards before Bryant’s hustling Jaylon Dickson hauled him down at the 4.
It looked for a moment like Dickson’s hustle would pay off big as it did on a similar play against Conway White the previous week. Josh Salguerio and Jakob Neel stopped Benton’s Zak Wallace for a loss. On second down, linebacker Tyler O’Neal pressured Morrow to rush his pass, which fell incomplete.
But, on third-and-goal, Morrow kept for the touchdown.
Bryant, which came into the game on a six-game winning streak, found itself trailing.
But that proved to be the height of Benton’s night. The Hornets roared back to score three times in the first half and three more times in the second to capture the league title going away, 40-7.
It’s the fourth conference championship for the Hornets’ freshmen in eight years under Horn.
“We’re fortunate to win it,” the coach stated. “That’s a good (Benton) football team. Our conference is stacked.
“Our guys do a pretty good job,” he added. “Coach (John) Orr, Coach (Kirk) Bock, Coach (Travis) Queck are fantastic coaches. All I do is make sure the paperwork’s right and get the buses. They handle everything else. They are superb coaches and we’re very fortunate to have them and I’m very fortunate to work with them. I learn from them every single day. And I’m just proud to be a Bryant Hornet.”
Thomas turned the inauspicious start into another tremendous performance with the help of the Hornets’ corps of blockers. He finished with 226 yards on 22 carries and four touchdowns. He concludes the season with 30 touchdowns and 1,706 yards rushing. Keethan Hudson added 101 yards and a TD. Dickson finished up at quarterback and ran in the final score from 30 yards out.
The Bryant defense held Benton to 38 yards of offense in the second half, 132 in the game — 113 of that on two plays. They forced four turnovers including interceptions by K.J. Terry and Dickson.
“We competed well,” Horn said. “We cleanly executed our game plan once again.
“That was a whole new defensive set for us,” he related. “It worked out well. We didn’t feel like they were going to be prepared for that. I’m going to say that they weren’t because we executed well, caused some turnovers. We felt like if we wanted to stay in the football game with them, we were going to have to cause some turnovers and limit their touches. And we did that.”
Asked what changes were made, Horn answered, “We just changed our coverages and changed our fronts up a little bit. We basically just tried to out-scheme by formation and we did.
As for the initial success for the Panthers, he related, “We wanted to see how we stood up first with our regular package. And they got loose one time.
“Actually, on the touchdown, that was my fault,” Horn stated. “I told Coach Orr, ‘Hey, let’s bring a guy off the edge right here because they’re not protected on the weak side.’ And they ran right into it. That’s my fault.
“Coach Orr did a great job coming up with that (scheme),” the coach added. “He schemed it up perfect and got the kids to execute it perfectly. They bought into it and it worked well for us.”
As for the early struggle on offense, Horn explained, “Anytime you play somebody that does stuff like that (bringing eight in the box), it’s hard to duplicate that in practice. Our guys can’t get a feel for what they’re trying to do in practice.
“I think, after that first series, they saw it very quickly, what the flow of the game was going to be like off their defensive front,” he continued. “We really didn’t have to make any adjustments. We just had to execute our game plan. The kids came to the sideline and said, ‘Coach, this is what happened.’ And ‘Coach, all I need to do is this, this and we need to do that.’ They basically told us what they needed to do and they did it.
“We went over it one more time (at halftime) to make sure everybody was on the same page because (Benton) really added an extra guy to the box. We ran away from it so, really, the extra guy was kind of a null point.”
The offensive line pretty much dominated the line of scrimmage from then on. After Benton’s touchdown, Coby Greiner fielded a line-drive kickoff at the Hornets’ 48. From there, Thomas slashed for 11 yards, Hudson dashed for 12 more and Thomas gashed the Benton defense for a 29-yard touchdown.
A try for two failed so Benton still held a slim lead, 7-6.
The Panthers picked up a first down on a pair of runs by Logan Easterling but then stalled out. Patrick Karp stuffed Easterling on the next try and, after a penalty pushed the Panthers back, Blaise Smith tracked down Morrow for a 12-yard loss on a sack.
From the 14, Morrow punted and Andrew Hayes returned the kick to the Panthers’ 35. On the first play there, Hudson broke his 35-yard touchdown run to make it 12-7 at the end of the first quarter.
To start the second quarter, the Panthers picked up a first down on Morrow pass to Michael Allison but a holding penalty forced them to go to the air. Hayes broke up a pass then nearly intercepted one off a tip. On third down, Smith and O’Neal combined on a sack.
Following a punt, the Hornets went 53 yards in eight plays. Thomas had some of a long run negated by a penalty but, on the next play, rolled 21 yards. Still, the Hornets faced a fourth-and-2 at the 5. They converted when Benton jumped offsides. Thomas then scored from the 2 and with Martin Rameriz booting the extra point it was 19-7.
Benton answered with a big play that went bad. Morrow passed deep down the right side to Bradyn Hendrix who caught the ball after it just got through the outstretched hands of Terry. Hendrix headed toward the end zone only to have Hayes and Josh Robinson catch up. Hayes, coming in from behind, yanked the ball loose and Robinson fell on it at the 8.
The Hornets went three-and-out and had to punt. Logan Grant’s first attempt wound up covering 47 yards. But a penalty negated that boot so he had to try again. This time, with the Panthers going for the block, his kick was short.
With :55.4 left in the half, Benton was within 35 yards of finishing the first half like it started it. But Brandon Jett knocked down a pass and, on the next play, Terry got his pick.
To start the second half, the Panthers went three and out. A short punt gave the Hornets possession at their own 45. On the second play of the series, Thomas set sail on a 50-yard touchdown jaunt to make it a three-score lead.
In turn, Benton managed 3 yards in three plays and punt again. This time Morrow got a friendly roll, pushing Bryant back to its own 16.
The Hornets scored again anyway. It took 11 plays. Thomas had a 34-yard run that was negated, in part, by an illegal block. Hudson followed with a 22-yard burst to set up Thomas’ fourth TD from the 3.
Ramirez kicked it to 33-7. Dickson’s interception ended Benton’s next series and three plays into the Hornets’ possession, he scooted it 30 yards for the final touchdown.