Hornets turn back Conway, advance
EDITOR’S NOTE: Because the look back at each day in Bryant athletic history has been so favorably received during the time when there was no sports during the COVID-19 shutdown, BryantDaily.com will continueposting past stories of Bryant athletics either posted on BryantDaily.com (from 2009 to the present) or published in the Bryant Times (from 1998 to 2008).
By ROB PATRICK
Actually, the Conway Wampus Cats had a pretty good game plan for the Bryant Hornets Friday night in the first round of the Class AAAAA State Playoffs.
Conway wanted to shorten the game by eating the clock with its running game and keep Bryant’s explosive offense off the field while, defensively, deploying in a six-man secondary that tried to force the Hornets into using its running game more and to restrict the passing game to shorter routes that would force longer, more time-consuming drives that would shorten the game even further.
And, it worked for a half. Conway led 7-0 and 14-7 then was even 14-14 at the half as it piled up 196 yards on the ground and never had to throw a pass. And, though the Hornets moved the ball well, they were forced to punt on one possession and they missed a long field goal attempt on another.
And Conway was counting on a repeat in the second half. The underdog Wampus Cats wanted to be close at the end of the game with designs on, perhaps, stealing a victory from the No. 1-ranked Hornets.
But something changed during the intermission. Bryant’s defense was not the same in the third quarter. They limited Conway to just 67 yards of offense the rest of the way, most of which came on a final, desperate fourth-quarter drive that reached the Bryant 15. There, the Hornets made a dramatic fourth-down stand to end Conway’s upset bid.
The Bryant offense thus could go ahead and take what the Cats were giving them and the ground game was effective enough to open up some passing lanes. The Hornets put together two long drives. One ended with a fumble deep in Conway territory, the other produced a decisive touchdown.
The Hornets came away with a hard-earned 21-14 victory, advancing to the State quarterfinals this week. They’ll host AAAAA-West co-champion Fort Smith Northside this Friday.
Northside’s Grizzlies, ranked No. 3 in the state by Hooten’s Arkansas Football, will be the toughest test the Hornets have faced since their trip to El Dorado. But, if the pattern of the season holds, expect a tremendous performance by Bryant. Every time they’ve had a close call this season, the Hornets have come back the next week with an over-powering effort.
Remember? After a 20-19 squeaker against Sheridan, the Hornets blasted Pine Bluff 55-31; after a narrow escape in overtime at Camden Fairview, they crushed Little Rock McClellan 35-12; and, after a 17-14 win at Texarkana, they blasted Benton 42-7.
But it’ll take the kind of effort the Hornets displayed in the second half against Conway.
“We just challenged the kids at halftime to come out and play like a championship team,” said defensive coordinator Steve Griffith. “We’d done quite a bit of stunting in the first half and we just lined up and played base defense in the second half. We just asked the kids to explode and control their gaps, their areas, to take care of their job and they did it.”
The defense was so committed to just lining up and whipping Conway out of its basic defense that even when the coaches called for a stunt in the second half, the players asked out of it.
“We looked out there to make a stunt call,” Griffith recalled, “and they said, ‘No.’ They wanted to stay base. The main thing was that we lined up and played the second half. We were soft the first half. We were not soft the second half.”
The adjustments and encouragement from the coaches were vital but there was more. Defensive end Michael McClellan and linebacker Jake Newell, both seniors, called their teammates together.
“The defense came in at halftime and we felt that we were pretty flat the first half,” Newell recalled. “We weren’t very happy with our performance. Me and McClellan gave a little pep talk, so to speak. We got everybody fired up. We came out after halftime, ready to play. We had a fumble (on offense) but it didn’t bother us because the defense was happy to be out on the field. We stepped it up big.”
In fact, it was McClellan, Newell and senior defensive tackle Patrick Defoe who, on the fourth-and-two at the Bryant 15 with about two minutes left to play, combined to crunch Conway halfback John Duhart for no gain to end the Wampus Cats’ hopes.
“I thought our defensive coaches, defensive players, everybody that stepped on the field in the second half, played extremely hard,” stated Hornets head coach Daryl Patton. “I didn’t think Conway could line up and run it down our throats (in the first half). They were very physical. They whipped us on the line of scrimmage. But in the second half, those same guys that were getting whipped, boy, they stepped it up and played great.
“I thought our offensive line did a good job blocking all night,” Patton added. “I thought Derik (McCoy) threw the ball well for the most part. When you’re passing against six defensive backs, it’s not real smart on my part. (Conway) had five in the box and five in the box tells us to run the football. But I thought we did a good job of throwing the ball against six.”
McCoy completed 16-of-29 passes for 252 yards. Six different receivers hauled in those completions with junior Matt Brown grabbing six — two or three in spectacular fashion — for a whopping 165 yards. Already the career receptions leader at Bryant, Brown eclipsed the school record for a single season Friday. His 63 catches are one more than Tanner Frances, who set the mark last season.
The Hornets were effective on the ground as well. Individually, Luke Brown piled up 99 yards on 23 carries, Matt White 30 yards on eight totes and McCoy had 13 yards in three tries. Each scored a touchdown.
But just as they did when the two teams met to open the 1999 season, Conway took the opening possession and drove for a touchdown. The Cats’ offensive line was beating the Hornets d-line to the punch as Duhart, fullback Brian Jones and wingback Jake Mason punched through for good chunks of yardage. At one point, Mason ran a sweep for 9 yards, Jones followed with a blast for 8 then Duhart broke a 41-yarder to the Bryant 3.
On the sixth play of the drive, Mason scored.
The Hornets’ offense appeared to be on its way to a tying score at the Conway 37. Matt Brown had made his first catch of the game, a spectacular 36-yard play in which he made a leaping, juggling grab between two defenders.
But, moments later, an offensive pass interference infraction was flagged. The 15-yard penalty and loss of down proved too much for Bryant to overcome and a Josh Ault punt knocked Conway back to the 15.
The Wampus Cats punched it out to the Bryant 44 before the Hornets’ defense stepped up. On a third-and-5, quarterback Rusty Ramsey tried to bootleg but Shawn Reynolds pulled him down before he could really get started and Conway punted back.
The kick rolled dead at the Bryant 8, but the Hornets’ offense, unfazed, put together a 92-yard march for a tying score. A third-down completion from McCoy to Josh Farmer got the drive going. McCoy hit Michael Wallace for 13 then, unbelievably, Conway lost track of Matt Brown, leaving him uncovered. McCoy saw it and the resulting play covered 47 yards.
In two carries, Luke Brown punched to the 10 then, using a wingback trap fresh from the Conway playbook, the Hornets scored with White slicing through the Cats’ defense into the end zone.
But Conway came right back to regain the advantage. A 33-yard kickoff return by Nathan Ragan gained the Cats good field position at the 42. Conway reached the Bryant 42 and faced a third-and-4, but Duhart broke a nine-yard run to convert. Three plays later, Duhart swept right for 18 yards and the touchdown.
The Hornets countered with a drive to the Conway 29, highlighted by a 30-yard completion from McCoy to Matt Brown. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Conway bench added another 15 yards but, on the next play, a 5-yard run by Luke Brown was negated by a holding penalty. That bogged the drive down and eventually, Ault was called on to try a 46-yard field goal.
The kick was long enough but just wide to the right.
In turn, Conway made a bid to extend the lead. Duhart ripped off an 18-yard run to get the subsequent series started. A play later, however, a holding penalty on Conway undermined the drive and the Cats eventually punted.
With 2:31 left in the half, the Hornets regained possession at their own 29. They scored 2:21 later when Luke Brown blasted in from the 1 on the 12th play of the drive. McCoy was 5-of-8 passing on the march including a 26-yarder to Matt Brown that converted a third-and-17 (the result of another holding penalty).
A 15-yard completion from McCoy to Matt Brown set up Luke Brown’s TD.
Bryant almost managed a lead at the half too. The Hornets recovered an onside kick at midfield and McCoy went deep down the right sideline to White. Despite double coverage, White was a step behind the defense at the goal line but McCoy’s pass was just off his fingertips.
But Bryant got the football to start the second half and Patton decided the Hornets would take what Conway was giving them. Seven straight running plays reached the 23. Luke Brown then took a handoff and broke outside right end. Inside the 20, the ball was knocked loose and Conway recovered.
The Hornets’ defense took the field and completely squelched the Conway running game for the first time. Three plays netted nothing and forced a punt.
Sensing a turning point, the Hornets lined up to try to block Ty Ledbetter’s kick and appeared to get a piece of it. The punt only reached the 32 where it floated out of bounds. But, despite a protest, the Hornets were flagged for roughing the kicker, meaning no one deflected the ball.
Conway had a first down but the Hornets defense stepped it up again. Defoe cut down Jones for a loss, a holding penalty pushed the Wampus Cats back to the 26.
Two plays later, Conway punted again.
Bryant regained possession at its 29 with 4:18 left in the third quarter. Mixing it up offensively, the Hornets drove 71 yards in 14 plays to the go-ahead touchdown. On fourth-and-goal, McCoy sneaked it in with 10:14 left to play.
Along the way, the Hornets had converted a pair of third downs: first, on a 5-yard run by Luke Brown to the Bryant 43; second, on a 5-yard pass from McCoy to Jonathan Jameson at the Conway 45.
A 22-yard completion from McCoy to Jameson followed the latter play and, a play later, the Hornets burned the Wampus Cats’ rush with a screen pass on which Luke Brown reached the 8.
In turn, Conway again was forced into a three-and-out. On third-and-3 at the Cats’ 37, Justin Keen, Defoe and Reynolds converged to drop Ramsey for a 4-yard loss.
But the Hornets’ subsequent series also went three-and-out as they tried to crank up the passing game again. With 7:12 left, Conway got the ball back at its own 35 following Ault’s second punt of the game.
With the fresh legs of fullback Kyle Hillis (subbing for Jones), Conway marched to the 18 in 10 plays, chewing up the time with the yardage. On third-and-5, Hillis was stood up at the 15, setting up the fourth-down showdown that ended the drive and returned possession to the Hornets.
Behind Luke Brown’s running, the Hornets ate up the rest of the clock despite Conway’s three timeouts and celebrated the first playoff victory in school history.