After eight consecutive victories in which the mercy rule took effect, the top-ranked Bryant Hornets were finally challenged by someone other than their own perceived limitations on Friday night. And it was no real surprise that it was the North Little Rock Charging Wildcats that did so.
After all, the Wildcats have won the 7A-Central Conference championship three years in a row, advanced to the State championship game three years in a row and they hadn’t lost a regular-season game to the Hornets since 2010. In fact, the Hornets 27-7 win in the 7A State title game last December snapped a six-game losing streak to the Charging Wildcats.
There was that bad taste that still lingered in the Cats’ proverbial mouths plus the fact that, after a lackluster season at times, they were named a 35-point underdog for the game, no doubt a first that sharpened their focus.
Bryant head coach Buck James admitted, after viewing all of North Little Rock’s games on video, the Cats hadn’t played as well as they did against his Hornets.
So, it proved to be a hotly contested game, one in which the Hornets found a way to win by scoring the last 14 points of the game after it was tied 21-21 in the third quarter.
The 35-21 win improved the Hornets to 9-0 overall and 6-0 in conference. They’ve clinched a share of the 7A-Central championship. They will battle Conway for the number one seed from the league to the playoffs next Friday.
Conway won a second-place showdown against Little Rock Catholic, 38-31. Those two teams came into the night tied with North Little Rock for second.
Junior quarterback Austin Ledbetter passed for 315 yards and five touchdowns, matching his school record for TD passes in a game and giving him 30 touchdown passes for the season, breaking the school record of 29 set by Scott Peeler in 2003.
Hayden Schrader, also a junior, caught 10 of those passes for 185 yards — fourth on Bryant’s all-time list for receiving yards in a game — including one he broke for 66 yards and a touchdown. Senior Jake Meaders — and it was Senior Night, after all — caught five passes for 60 yards and three of the touchdowns. Joseph Young hauled in the other four passes for 81 yards and the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The passing game was vital for Bryant because they could not get much going on the ground. They were limited to a season-low total of 56 yards.
Meanwhile, North Little Rock managed 211 yards rushing including 178 by senior Brandon Thomas, who scored all three Cats’ TDs.
“They had seven in the box, but they physically whipped us,” James said of his rushing woes. “They whipped us on both lines. Some of our youth and inexperience showed up. But (the Wildcats) haven’t whipped anybody like that all year. That means we’ve got some work to do. They played their guts out and they whipped us on the line of scrimmage the entire night.”
As has been the case most of the season, the Hornets played three sophomores on the offensive line much of the game.
The Hornets’ defense, however, forced five turnovers including interceptions by Derrick Rose Jr., Austin Schroeder and a clincher by Cameron Scarlett after an apparent North Little Rock turnover was ruled dead before a fumble with 4:27 left in the game.
Schroeder also recovered a fumble, as did Tamaurian Wilson.
Bryant had two turnovers. In all, four of the seven led to touchdowns for the recipient.
“I was proud of their resiliency,” said James after the game. “You know, great teams have a way of being resilient. It gave us a chance to win. Our kids fought for it as hard as they could fight for it. Not that we played great all the time and not that North Little Rock played great all the time.
“They’ve got a good football team,” he noted. “They played extremely hard. Their kids laid it on the line. I thought our kids did the same and we had a chance to win. Anytime you play a team like that and you have a chance to win, you’ve earned your money.”
Bryant found itself trailing for the first time all season when Thomas broke a 46-yard touchdown run on the fourth play of the game. It was a quick-hitting dive up the middle. He would later score on a 71-yard burst on a similar play. But the Hornets adjusted after that and held him to 61 yards on his other 18 carries.
“We lined up wrong, twice,” James explained. “You can’t do that. You’ve got to be disciplined.
“They did a good job of shifting and putting people in position to do stuff,” he added. “Really, in some ways, they out-coached us on some of that stuff. We didn’t do a good job of getting our kids ready for that. We’ve got to fix that.”
In between those Thomas touchdowns, the Hornets scored three. Both teams went three-and-out after the opening score. The Hornets tied it with 5:35 left in the first quarter when Ledbetter completed his first pass on a little out-route to Schrader who made the catch, broke a tackle and sprinted up the sideline for a 66-yard TD strike. Brock Funk, who was good on all five of his extra-point kicks, added the tying tally.
Rose’s interception got the ball back for the Hornets near midfield. After being pushed back by a holding penalty, Ledbetter found Schrader for 15 yards then, thanks to a pass interference penalty the Hornets reached the Cats’ 31. They made it to the 26 but a fourth-down pass fell incomplete.
With five to seven defenders rushing every play, the Hornets had a lot of solo coverage in the secondary. But Ledbetter, with defenders in his face many times, could not always get his feet set for accurate throws. He narrowly missed some big plays.
Still, the Hornets got enough.
The Wildcats drove into Bryant territory where they stalled and punted the Hornets back to their 19. In what looked like vintage Hornets this season, they marched 81 yards for a go-ahead score. They converted two third-down situations. The first was early in the drive, a 16-yard completion from Ledbetter to Schrader. The second was the touchdown play, a pass of 8 yards to Meaders.
Wilson’s fumble recovery set the stage for the Hornets’ third touchdown, a 29-yard strike to Meaders that, with Funk’s kick made it 21-7.
It looked like the Hornets might be on their way, but Thomas’ second long touchdown run closed the gap. Bryant made a bid to answer with a drive to the Cats’ 33 before they turned it over on downs.
The Hornets got the ball to start the second half. Ahmad Adams broke free for a 24-yard run to the Cats’ 44. But, a play later, Schrader pulled down a pass and was stripped of the ball at the 36. Safety David Smith scooped it up and returned it to the Bryant 44.
And the Cats cashed in. Using a halfback pass, Jerrell Rice threw to tight end Jeremiah Sims for 30 yards to the 14. Though it took five plays from there, they got it in the end zone to tie the game with 7:28 left in the third quarter.
The Hornets, in turn, went three-and-out. Scarlett unleashed a 52-yard punt to pin North Little Rock at their 16. But the Cats had a chance to regain the lead. On the second play of the drive, however, Schroeder made his interception at the Cats’ 24.
Bryant needed five plays to get the tie-snapping score. On a beautifully thrown pass by Ledbetter on a corner route, Meaders ran under it for an 11-yard TD play. The Hornets were back in front with 2:50 left in the third.
North Little Rock’s responding drive was stopped at the 44. Josh Beck retreated to punt it back to Bryant but got a bad snap and took off running. He wound up going 56 yards for a touchdown only to have it called back due to an illegal block early in the run.
A second snap was better, and Beck booted the Hornets back to their 22. Again, however, they went three-and-out. Scarlett punted it back to the Cats, who took over on the 37 with a second chance to tie the game.
On the first play, however, Bryant’s interior line pounded Thomas to the turf. The ball was fumbled, and Bryant recovered. A play later, Ledbetter found Joseph Young for a 38-yard touchdown pass that put the Charging Wildcats down by 14 with 9:42 left to play.
North Little Rock went mostly to their passing game at that point. Damon Bell, who alternated with Kareame Cotton at quarterback, completed three passes but, along the way, he was sacked twice by Bryant’s senior defensive end, Kyle Green. The second time halted the possession on a fourth-and-9 at the Bryant 26.
The Cats got another chance when Smith intercepted a Ledbetter pass on a third-and-24 play (penalties pushed the Hornets back).
Moments later, Cotton, trying to pick up a first on a third-and-8, was smacked down for a loss and an apparent fumble. Rose scooped it up but lost it when he was tackled. Though initially the officials, after a long discussion, appeared to be giving it to Bryant, they wound up ruling that, on the initial fumble, Cotton was down before the ball came out, after heavy protests from both head coaches.
Video showed that both fumbles came before the player was down and it may have cost North Little Rock a score because a Cats’ lineman, Erin Smith, scooped up the second fumble and was headed down the sideline toward the end zone.
As it was, on what should’ve been a fourth-down play but was still listed as third down on the down-markers, Bell went back to pass, and Bryant got it back anyway as Scarlett made a juggling interception at the 15 with 4:21 left to play.
Soon, Bryant was punting again. This time, Scarlett unloaded with a 50-yard punt as he was knocked down. But, instead of a roughing the kicker penalty and a first down, it was ruled a running-into-the kicker penalty, a five-yard mark-off that wouldn’t have picked up a first down.
Still, the officials brought it back, assuming Bryant wanted to punt it again.
It took some doing but James got the officials attention and declined the penalty, taking the punt and leaving North Little Rock 68 yards away from scoring with 2:32 left to play, needing two touchdowns. The Cats ran out of time as the Hornets celebrated the well-earned victory.