Photos by Rick Nation
RUSSELLVILLE — Defeat seemed imminent. Moments after the Bryant Hornets had completed a climb all the way back from a 17-0 deficit to take a 20-17 lead, the Russellville Cyclones completed an 80-yard scoring drive, capped by a 16-yard pass from Michael Mullin to Caleb Stokes that gave them a 4-point lead with just :52.2 left in the game.
After booting the extra point, Russellville’s Nate Turner kicked off out of bounds. It saved the Hornets some time and, ordinarily, most teams would’ve declined the penalty to get the ball at their own 35 for a last-ditch effort by the offense.
But Bryant head coach Paul Calley took the penalty. The Cyclones were pushed back 5 yards and Turner had to tee it up for a second kickoff, a second sprint up the field by the coverage team.
Turner got a long kick away and Bryant’s right side return made Phillip Isom-Green, a former running back turned safety, had to retreat to his own 12. And with key blocks along the way, he sprinted up the right hash, kept going and going and — was gone.
The 88-yard return was a stunner for the Homecoming crowd and their team, putting the Hornets on top 27-24.
Though there was still time on the clock, Russellville’s offense ran out of it after three passes and a penalty as the Hornets escaped with a victory in the 7A/6A-Central Conference opener for both teams.
It was a barnburner reminiscent of the kinds of games between the two teams from 2004-09.
“We always feel like our kickoff return has big-play potential,” stated Hornets head coach Paul Calley. “Kickoff return has won a lot of football games for us. We preach over and over to the kids that special teams can win or lose you football games. Hopefully, it sinks in.”
The return was the first from a deep return man since Aaron Bell ran one back 95 yards against Little Rock Catholic in 2011. In 2014, star defensive lineman Cameron Murray, from a blocking position, fielded an onside kick and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown.
“We won it, we lost then we won it again in a matter of two minutes,” Calley stated.
Russellville’s go-ahead score was preceded by Bryant’s touchdown on a powerful 7-yard run by Cameron Coleman that gave the Hornets their first lead of the game with 3:30 to go.
“There were a lot of emotions,” the coach acknowledged.
Most notably, due to the loss of senior leader Savonte Turner, who led the team in rushing in 2014 and was doing so again in 2015. After Russellville had taken a 3-0 lead on the first series of the game, Turner went down as he was trying to block on the ensuing kickoff, suffering a compound fracture of his leg.
“It shocked us,” Calley stated. “He’s our sparkplug. He’s our go-to guy, the leader of our backs. And a lot of our game plan tonight was 31 personnel, three backs in the backfield.
“When he got hurt, it limited what we could do offensively,” he added. “Coach (Lance) Parker (offensive coordinator) and the offensive coaches did a good job of getting us into what we could do, keeping the kids settled down.”
Junior running backs DeAmonte Terry and Cameron Coleman stepped up for the Hornets, particularly during the second half comeback. Terry finished with a career-high 167 yards on 17 rushes. Coleman added 46 yards on 13 tries including that rugged go-ahead TD.
Quarterback Gunnar Burks rushed for 54 yards despite a couple of sacks. He also completed 7 of 13 passes for 46 yards with a pair of interceptions, one on a last-gasp pass to the end zone on the last play of the first half.
“It wasn’t great but we did enough to win,” the coach concluded. “Russellville played well enough to win. They deserved to win, honestly. We just made a play at the end. Good football teams make plays like that.”
The win improved the Hornets to 4-0 going into a home contest against Catholic. Russellville fell to 1-3 and faces powerhouse Greenwood next Friday.
After Russellville’s opening drive reached the Bryant 24 with sophomore passer Ryan Talley and junior runner Cole McKown alternating at quarterback, the defense rose up for Bryant. A tackle for loss by Mario Waits and Hayden Knowles started the Cyclones’ stall. On a third-down play, Waits and linebacker Gregg Williams dropped Talley for a loss.
Turner wound up having to make a 42-yard field goal.
After the injury to Savonte Turner, the Hornets went three-and-out and Russellville responded with another scoring drive. The Cyclones accounted for most of the 60-yard drive with passing. Talley completed three throws including a 17-yarder to Caleb Stokes to convert a second-and-14. Two plays later, on a third-and-4, the duo combined again on a 27-yard TD toss.
Nate Turner kicked it to 10-0.
And if the Hornets weren’t already shocked enough, three plays into their subsequent possession, corner Josiah Woodard jumped the route on a bubble screen. Bryant quarterback Gunnar Burks never saw him and Woodard, catching the ball in stride, sprinted 52 yards for a touchdown that, with the PAT, had the Cyclones up 17-0.
On the Hornets’ next try, they picked up a first down on an eight-yard pass from Burks to Landon Smith. But two plays later, Burks was sacked on a Russellville third-down blitz. Ray came on to punt but the Hornets got a reprieve when the Cyclones were cited for illegal participation with 12 men on the field.
Keyed by an 18-yard run by Coleman and a 19-yard keeper by Burks, the Hornets drove to the Russellville 3 but couldn’t get into the end zone. Ray came on and drilled a 21-yard field goal to make it 17-3.
That wound up being the score at the half.
The third quarter started in frustrating fashion as well. Terry broke a 15-yard run and Burks completed back-to-back short passes to Aaron Orender. But, on a first down at the Cyclones 32, Coleman was stripped of the ball from behind by linebacker Marquis Rhode, who recovered it just before the ball went out of bounds.
Soon, however, the Cyclones were punting again. A solid return by Jaelyn Jones from the 12 produced a little operating room for the Hornets and they proceeded to drive 74 yards in 11 plays. They converted four third-downs along the way including one on Burks’ 2-yard touchdown run.
Terry set up the score with a 32-yard burst followed by an 11-yard run by Coleman.
Ray kicked the PAT and the Hornets were within 17-10.
After forcing another punt, the Hornets drove to the Russellville 19. Terry ignited the drive with a 40-yard gallop. But a third-down run by Coleman fell short.
After first, it looked like the Hornets might go for it on a fourth-and-4 but Calley turned to Ray who drilled a 36-yard field goal to trim the lead to 17-13 with 11:07 left in the game.
Russellville managed to drive from its own 19 to the Bryant 30, mostly on a 36-yard pass from Talley to Steven Baty. On a second-down at the 30, McKown was in the game. Though he had faked passes before, McKown had always run the ball. But, at the point, he faked a run and stepped back to pass.
The throw, however, was the proverbial wounded duck and Jones intercepted for the Hornets, return the ball to the 27.
With the ground game in full force behind the senior offensive line of tackles Cole Fritschen and Brycen Waddle, guards Cole Chapman and Daniel Coppock along with center Zack Knapp, tight ends Jaret Jacobs and Dagen Cardin and H-backs Demaja Price and Drew Alpe. Terry and Coleman took turns at tailback with Burks mixing in keepers.
The longest run of the 10-play drive was a 20-yard slash by Terry. From the 7, Coleman flashed across right tackle. He appeared to be stacked up at about the 5 only to somehow emerge from the pile and step into the end zone.
Ray’s extra point made it 20-17.
Russellville’s answering drive to regain the advantage nearly ended early. From their own 39, Talley went back to pass. As he released the ball, he was drilled by Isom-Green coming on a blitz. The ball came up short and Bryant corner Najee Hunt appeared to have a clutch interception in front of Baty. But somehow, Baty reached in and took the ball away from Hunt at the Bryant 39, keeping the drive alive with 2:40 to go.
Talley had to come out of the game and Mullin, who started much of last year, came in for just his second snap of the contest. He completed a 19-yard pass to Baty to get the ball to the 20.
Two plays later, they almost got sidetracked when a third-down pass fell incomplete. It figured they’d try a game-tying field goal. But a defensive holding penalty gave the Cyclones life.
Marvin Moody sacked Mullin back to the 16 and Russellville took a timeout with :57.2 showing. On the next play, Mullin threw a back-shoulder toss to the end zone that Stokes hauled in for the touchdown that put the Cyclones in a position to win the game.
Combined, Talley and Mullin completed 15 of 22 passes for 214 yards in the game.
“We had a game plan going in,” Calley related. “We didn’t change the game plan. We have a hard time taking it from the practice field to the game field. I’ve talked to the kids about it. They are — I don’t know if it’s immature? I don’t know how to put it. I can’t put my finger on it and it frustrates me.
“We have two coverages,” he explained. “We could not get lined up, couldn’t get in our own coverages. I don’t know what the answer is. We’ve rarely had this problem. I don’t know. We’ve just got to keep working.”