Hornets stun Fairview, advance to elite 8
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
CAMDEN — What a difference a week makes.
In their regular-season finale, the Bryant Hornets football team dragged through their game against the North Little Rock Charging Wildcats, losing to the 1-8 team 16-14.
But given a second chance on their season, the Hornets came to life in the first round of the playoffs. Inspired, intense and enthused, the Hornets popped the Camden Fairview Cardinals, the top seed from the AAAAA-South Conference, 20-7 for only the second playoff win in the program’s history.
The win, which improved Bryant to 6-4-1, was part of a sweep by the AAAAA-Central Conference in the first round. It earned the Hornets, now one of the final eight teams still playing in Class AAAAA, home field advantage all the way to the finals, if they can keep going.
And, speaking of second chances: Bryant will host West Memphis in the second round. The Blue Devils ousted the Hornets in the first round last season, holding off a furious Bryant comeback to escape 41-35 on a frigid, windy, black night in West Memphis.
There were different takes on the emotional turnaround by the Hornets, who were spurred on by a boisterous smattering of die-hard fans at the impressive new Cardinal Stadium in Camden.
“I think some of them finally realized that this could be their last one and they stepped it up,” said head coach Paul Calley.
“I think everyone realized that, if we lose, we’re out,” agreed senior linebacker Josh McClellan, who intercepted two passes and recovered a fumble in the game. “All the seniors stepped up and we wanted to play hard. We haven’t played that hard all year.”
“I really believe it was the North Little Rock game,” commented Bryant defensive coordinator Steve Griffith. “We did not play with the intensity and fire and — taking nothing away from North Little Rock — I just think our kids felt like they did not show up and they wanted to prove to people that they deserve to be in the playoffs. And they did. Now, we’re excited about the challenge of playing West Memphis.”
“This week, we came out strong in practice,” said senior wide receiver Zach Cardinal. “We had a big upset last Thursday against North Little Rock. They beat us and we didn’t play that good. We didn’t want to lose another playoff game, so we came out strong and worked together as a team. We stepped up out here tonight. We had a better attitude. We didn’t get down when bad things happened, we stepped it up.
“(The coaches) made everybody choose captains and (Scott) Peeler, Bo (Lee) and me were made captains,” Cardinal continued. “They looked for people to lead the team and I guess they picked us because I think they were thinking we could do it. We just got together as a team and said we’re not through playing yet. We don’t want this season to be over. We want to keep going. And they all stepped up.”
Particularly on defense. Fairview, which had not scored fewer that 20 points in any game this season, had put up as many as 62 points in a game this season (against Benton).
Though racked with injuries, the Cardinals power running game figured to be a tough assignment for the Hornets, who have struggled, at times, against such offenses.
But an adjustment made by Griffith and defensive coaches Brad Stroud and Kris Clark, along with the return of junior lineman Andrew Hughes, stymied Fairview, which wound up with 168 yards rushing which included a 73-yard run by quarterback Jeroderick Coleman for the Cards’ lone touchdown. Plus, the Hornets forced seven turnovers including four interceptions, McClellan’s two, one by Cardinal and another by Todd Bryan.
“We just made a couple of adjustments to our 4-3,” Griffith explained. “We felt like we had to get some more size so we took out one d-back and brought an extra d-lineman in and tried to play, basically, a six-front on one side and kind of a five-front, our normal 4-3 look and just walked the linebacker up, on the other side.
“We felt like, coming in, that we had to get up and play physical,” he added. “The kids responded Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday with great practices. We just challenged them that that’s going to be the big key. How they responded and how hard they played and they just did a super job.
“Our defense played lights out,” declared Calley. “I couldn’t believe it. We had great practices all week. Coach Griff and Stroud and Clark had a great game plan going in. I thought they did a great job of preparing the kids. Just a tremendous effort. When you cause that many turnovers — we should’ve scored more points. We got down there a couple of times and didn’t get it in the end zone. But I just can’t say enough about the defense.”
“Josh McClellan, three big turnovers for us,” Griffith praised. “Andrew Hughes played physical all week, played physical tonight and played a big part. Just the entire team effort was great. We had guys flying to the football. Todd Bryan did a super job on a couple of deep balls.”
Here’s how tough the Hornets were on Fairview’s running game. Of the 36 rushes for the Cardinals, 23 of them netted 2 yards or less and nine of those were losses.
Hornets take lead
Bryant’s first score was set up by Cardinal’s interception which ended Fairview’s first series on just its second play. From the Cards’ 39, it took the Hornets seven plays. A 21-yard completion from Peeler to Richie Wood on a third-and-10 was big. From the 7, another third-down pass to Wood produced the TD.
Fairview’s possessions after that went punt, interception (by Bryan), fumble (recovered by Brandon Butler), but the Hornets were unable to take advantage. So, when Coleman broke the 73-yard run to paydirt with 10:33 left in the half, Fairview tied the game.
The Hornets answered with its best drive of the game, rolling from their 28 to the Fairview 5. Again, Peeler and Wood teamed up for the big play, a 37-yard completion to the 19.
From the 5, however, the Hornets were pushed back when, after an incomplete pass in the end zone, they were a bit too vehement in lobbying for a pass interference penalty. The unsportsmanlike conduct penalty pushed them back to the 20 and, on the next play, Peeler’s pass was picked off by Nick McCaskill.
But the defense stepped up again, with the help of a holding penalty against the Cards, forcing a Fairview punt.
Fairview got another break, however, when, on Bryant first play from its 38, Peeler, scrambling from the rush, had the ball taken away at the 25.
Another penalty against Fairview helped, but the Hornets again came through. On a second-and-2 at the 17, Hughes dropped Phillip Gordon for a loss then Jesse Nordman sacked Coleman for an 8-yard loss. On fourth-and-11 from the 26, Coleman threw incomplete and Bryant dodged the bullet.
It was 7-7 at the half.
Butler recovered another fumble on the second play of the second half and, this time, the Hornets took advantage. From the 16, Bo Lee, who rushed for 44 yards on 13 carries, cut against the flow for a 12-yard run to the 4. He scored from there on the next play. Bryan kicked it to 14-7.
In turn, Fairview put together a drive from its own 35 to the Bryant 28. But a holding penalty set them back and, on third and long, McClellan came up with his first interception.
And the Hornets’ sideline was so fired up about that, their celebration cost them 15 yards.
After an exchange of punts, the Hornets put together a key drive for the first of two field goals by Bryan. A 41-yard pass from Peeler to Cardinal keyed the march from the Bryant 28 to the Fairview 19. The drive stalled after Peeler was sacked but Bryan drilled a 37-yard field goal on the second play of the fourth quarter to make it 17-7.
“Scott’s in the mentality now, he’s still trying to win the game for us and we had a lead,” Calley mentioned. “He’s just a competitor. He’s going to go at it. A couple of times we should’ve thrown the ball away, he’s still trying to make plays.”
McClellan recovered a fumble on the next Fairview play and the Hornets drove to another field goal. A 9-yard run by Lee got the drive started.
“We got a little running game going there after we wore them down a bit in the second half and (linebacker) Isaiah Rucker went out (with an ankle injury). That helped. He was plugging every hole there in the first half.
“They had a lot of injuries,” Calley acknowledged. “They were beat up.”
Cardinal made a heads-up play to set up the field goal. A long pass to Dustin Holland down the left sideline was deflected by Holland and a Fairview defender. But there was Cardinal to grab the ball at the 5.
Three incomplete passes later, Bryan added a 22-yard field goal to make it 20-7.
Fairview’s subsequent possession ended with McClellan’s second interception. Behind the running of Lee and Cardinal, the Hornets drove to the 19 but, on a third down, Peeler, still trying to scramble, was sacked for a loss back to the 40.
But with 3:06 left, Fairview kept to the running game and ran out the clock.