Playoff bound: Hornets 28, Panthers 23
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
BENTON — In the 28 years that the Bryant Hornets and the Benton Panthers have been playing, Benton has won 22 times including 14 in a row at one point. Many times, it seemed, at least to Bryant folks, that Benton got all the breaks. The Hornets would be on the verge of victory but something catastrophic would happen.
On Thursday, the Hornets finally got a few breaks against their arch-rivals and, for the first time in the series, won for a third straight season with a gut-wrenching, come-from-behind 28-23 victory at C.W. Lewis Stadium.
With a playoff berth on the line, it was, perhaps, as important as any Bryant-Benton game has ever been for both teams. And the Hornets, matching Benton’s 7-3 overall record and 4-3 AAAAA-South Conference mark, earned the trip, their second in the last three years. They’ll play at Conway in the first round on Nov. 9.
Benton, trying to get back to the postseason for the first time since 1997, is finished for the season.
About those breaks:
The most obvious ones were a pair of touchdown passes — three passes altogether — that were tipped by Benton defenders and caught by Bryant receivers. Twice during Bryant’s 28-point run that negated the Panthers 17-0 lead, senior Jonathan Jameson kept his concentration and hauled in Lance Parker passes.
Also, Benton’s 17-0 margin could’ve been a bigger hill for the Hornets to climb had a touchdown not been called back because of penalty.
With the Panthers up 7-0, was an interception return by Benton’s Blake Carlson that was negated by an illegal block. The Panthers got the ball at the Bryant 43 and wound up attempting a 50-yard field goal that was short.
Later, after Bryant had rallied for a 21-17 lead (including Jameson’s two tipped TD receptions), the Panthers appeared to have a go-ahead touchdown when Carlson crossed the goal line on a 7-yard run. But a holding penalty brought the play back. Three plays later, the Panthers’ Jared Little attempted a 35-yard field goal and missed it to the right.
There have been years when those tipped passes would’ve been interceptions and those penalties would’ve been missed.
The intensity of the game made it that much sweeter for the Hornets to win. It didn’t look good for Bryant in the first half. The Panthers, with a large experienced offensive line and the bullish tandem of 6-2, 245 Luke Woodard and 6-0, 240 Patrick Heffner in the backfield, controlled the football in the first quarter and drove for an opening touchdown. After Woodard’s 22-yard run early in the drive, the longest play of the drive gained 8 yards.
The Hornets appeared to have Benton stopped at the 1 when a fourth-and-1 run by Woodard from the 2 came up short of the goal line. The officials even signaled that the Hornets had held. The defense flew off the field in celebration but had to return when the Panther coaching staff asked for a measurement and it was discovered that the run had garnered a first down.
Two plays later, however, the Panthers were no closer. On third-and-goal, the Hornets even dropped Woodard for a loss.
After a timeout to consider a field goal or going for it, the Panthers got Woodard through to the end zone by inches. Little kicked it to 7-0.
The two teams traded punts then Carlson picked off a Parker pass after the Hornets picked up their initial first down of the game early in the second quarter.
Linebacker Alex Pudinas made a crucial defensive play during the ensuing series as the Hornets forced Little’s unsuccessful field goal attempt. On a second-and-10 at the 28, Pudinas dropped Benton quarterback Bryan Greer for a loss back to the 32.
Bryant ensuing possession ended with another interception by Blake Whittle. His return to the Bryant 22 was whittled by an illegal block penalty but, on the first play from the 38, the Hornets were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. A play later, Heffner rumbled 12 yards for a score. Little booted the PAT and it was 14-0.
A short punt gave Benton a chance to add a field goal as Little drilled a 36-yarder with 1:32 left in the half.
Down by three scores with just one first down and two turnovers to that point, the Hornets were under the gun as they got the ball at their 20. Two incomplete passes later, they needed a big play and they got it. Senior Matt White, the school’s all-time leading rusher, broke a 29-yard run to near midfield.
Two plays later, however, the Hornets faced a third-and-6 at the Benton 47 with time running out. Parker, just 3-of-10 to that point, connected with A.J. Nixon on a 36-yard strike to the Benton 11. After another pair of incompletions, it was again third down and, once more, the Hornets came through in the clutch. Parker escaped the blitzing Panthers with a roll-out right and fired to Nixon for the touchdown that made it 17-6 at the half.
The momentum that the Hornets gained from that drive was heightened by Nixon’s 52-yard return of the second-half kickoff. From the Benton 45, White burst for 15 then 5. Parker scrambled for 4 to set up a third-and-1 at the 21. But two tries from there were stopped as the Benton defense stepped up.
In turn, however, the Bryant defense responded by separating Woodard from the football at the 26. Jason Rose, who made a team-high 16 tackles in the game, recovered.
A pass to Brandon St. Pierre moved the ball to the 12 where, a play later, Parker threw into the end zone. Benton’s Zach Rundle got a hand on it as he tried to stay with Jameson. But it went off Rundle’s hands. Jameson adjusted in a split second and held on as the ball plopped into his hands for the touchdown.
Parker passed to St. Pierre on a successful 2-point conversion and it was 17-14.
Benton got a good return from Josh Donnelly on the ensuing kickoff. Starting at the Bryant 35, however, the Panthers managed just 4 yards in three plays against the charged up Hornets’ defense.
Little punted into the end zone and Bryant’s offense revved up again. Parker and Nixon combined on completions of 45 and 14 yards and, a play later, Parker rolled right looking for Jameson down the right sideline. The pass appeared to be short and Panther defender went up attempting to intercept. But the ball deflected high into the air and right to Jameson standing behind two Benton players for the go-ahead touchdown.
Anthony Moreno added the extra point to make it 21-17.
Benton’s hopes began to dwindle when a clipping penalty on the kickoff forced the offense to start at its own 13. Carlson was stopped for no gain by defensive tackle Aaron Johnson then Woodard squeezed ahead for 2 yards. On third down, Greer’s pass fell incomplete but St. Pierre, coming up from his safety position, had miss-timed his hit on the receiver and got there too early. The interference penalty kept the Benton drive alive.
Still, two plays later, the Panthers faced a third-and-10 at the 30. That’s when Greer completed his first pass of the game, a 36-yarder to Chris Boggs.
The Panthers eventually reached the 7 where Carlson’s TD run was negated by penalty and Little’s resulting field-goal attempt failed.
The Panthers got a reprieve when Richard Campbell intercepted a pass at the Bryant 30. But two plays later, Bryant safety Shea Rentch picked off Greer at the 25.
That set up the decisive touchdown drive. White got it started with runs of 8, 3 and 17 yards. Parker, later, converted a third-and-3 from the Benton 40 with a 17-yard scramble which set up his 22-yard touchdown pass to Nixon and the Hornets’ 28-17 lead.
Benton responded with a passing game that hadn’t been utilized to that point. Greer completed 4-of-5 passes on a 67-yard drive including an 18-yard completion to Carlson for the touchdown — a pass that Rentch nearly picked off.
A run for a 2-point conversion was stopped as Heffner was buried short of the goal-line.
With 3:48 left, the Hornets figured to just run the clock out. Later, head coach Daryl Patton said that’s what he should’ve done but admitted he wasn’t sure his team could do it against the defensive alignment Benton employed. In hopes of burning the Panthers, Patton called three pass plays. Parker scrambled for 3 yards on first down but the next two passes fell incomplete and stopped the clock.
The Hornets were forced to punt and, after Carlson’s 25-yard return, the Panthers had the football 50 yards away from a lead with plenty of time — 3:17 was on the clock.
Bryant cornerback Kevin Littleton dropped Greer for a 1-yard loss then Pudinas foiled an attempt at a lateral from Greer to Carlson to set up a trick pass play. Pudinas had Carlson covered and Greer had to throw the ball away.
A third-down pass was incomplete and so was a fourth-down pass. But, on the fourth-down play, the Rentch were flagged for interference and, with 2:55 left, Benton still had life.
A run by Woodard failed to fool the Hornets then with end Eric Scott bearing down on him, Greer had to throw away a second down pass. On third down, Greer was sacked by Johnson.
On fourth-and-10 from the Bryant 35, the Panthers went for the end zone and Carlson appeared to have a window down the left sideline. But Littleton stayed with him and knocked the ball down at the goal line as the Hornets held on.
And, in the end, with White running the ball and Benton picking up a pair of face mask penalties, the Hornets were able to run out the final 1:25.
Adjustments: A coach’s challenge
By ROB PATRICK
BENTON — Adjustments — beyond the original gameplan and the day-to-day routine of practice, it’s probably a coach’s biggest challenge and most satisfying achievement when successful.
With a game ongoing, they have to be made on the fly. While trying to orchestrate the gameplan, problems have to be analyzed — what’s the other team doing to stop us or to move the ball so well? Why is our team being ineffective? — and the effective changes have to be not only thought out, they have to be conveyed to the players and executed.
Sometimes the adjustments have to be emotional instead of technical and, in that case, they may be made by the players themselves.
Often, one team’s adjustments are met by an opponents’ changes. It’s the chess game within the football game.
In Thursday’s 28th renewal of the Bryant-Benton rivalry, the adjustments war was as much a key as any to the Hornets’ 28-23 comeback victory.
But, along the way, one of those emotional adjustments occurred for the Hornets’ defense. Benton reached the 11 and suddenly the sledding got tougher. Two plays later, the Panthers faced a third-and-4 at the 5. Massive fullback Patrick Heffner got to the 2 and, on fourth down, it appeared the Hornets had stopped massive tailback Luke Woodard short. It was even signaled Bryant football by two of the officials as the Hornets celebrated their goal-line stand.
But that emotional lift was undercut when Benton asked for a measurement and it was discovered that, although the Panthers were short of a touchdown, they’d inched ahead enough to get a first down.
The Hornets, however, had discovered they could stop the powerful Panthers ground game and, even with a first-and-goal at the 1, it required four more plays before Woodard edged over the goal line from the 2. Yes, the Hornets had actually pushed the Panthers back before the TD.
It was a big moment for the Panthers, getting the early lead. But it was also a big moment for the Hornets’ defense.
“I think the goal-line stand there — they did get in — but the stand gave the kids some confidence,” commented Bryant defensive coordinator Steve Griffith. “It was on the fifth or sixth down that (Benton) actually scored after they got to the 1 yard line. Then as the first half kind of wound down then the crowd started getting into the game and the kids really got pumped off the crowd the second half as the crowd got more and more into the ballgame. It just charged the kids on defense that much more. They just played hard. It wasn’t a big (technical) adjustment, as the game went along the kids just played harder and harder and harder.”
Benton added a touchdown and a field goal before the half was over but both were a result of a short field. The 38-yard touchdown drive was also aided by a major penalty against the Hornets. The series prior to the field goal failed to net a first down after a short punt gave Benton the ball at the Bryant 35.
In fact, the Panthers managed just two first downs — one on that major penalty — between the time they took that 7-0 lead and the time when Bryant had rallied for a 21-17 edge midway through the third quarter.
Offensively, the adjustments were both technical and emotional. The Hornets were stymied by the Benton defense for most of the first half. They had managed just one first down through the first 22 minutes of the 24 minute half. The Panthers’ blitzes had rattled junior quarterback Lance Parker, shaken his confidence.
“I’m going to say this, we’d worked on it all week,” stated Bryant head coach Daryl Patton. “They were blitzing us and they were getting to us. I guess it was poor coaching on my part for not listening and making an adjustment. But coach (Paul) Calley talked to me and said we had to go with a tight end to stop the blitzing and give Lance a little more time and that made all the difference in the world. We put (defensive end) Josh White in at tight end and it allowed Lance to have a little bit more time to throw the football and, boy, it paid big dividends. And it was all Coach Calley and his decision to do that.”
“Lance, when he gets rattled, you know he’s not real accurate when he’s throwing the ball. Of course, nobody would be,” said Calley, who coaches the offensive line and serves as co-offensive coordinator with Patton. “But when they’ve got us out-numbered in the box and they’re bringing more than we can pick up with the five interior linemen and a back, we’ve got to make some kind of adjustment.
“Over the last couple of years,” Calley continued. “What people have done what Benton was doing to us, we’ve had to go with a tight end set or somebody backside to pick up the backside blitz. What we did, we tried to put the strength of the formation and make them line up to it, then we’d motion away from it because we wanted that guy on the line — we knew we could pick him up with the tight end. Then, backside we wanted motion to the guy they were blitzing outside. He’s got to make a decision. He’s going to have to drop in coverage (against the motion man) or he’s going to keep coming and we’re going to have two on two out there against the (secondary). So, it kind of forced them to play a little different and it gave us better odds, better numbers. The numbers have got to be in our favor.
“Our kids did a great job picking up blitzes,” praised Calley. “(Benton) threw everything at us and our guys just hung in there. They’re coachable and they play hard. We made the adjustments and they threw it and caught it in the second half and it made the difference.”
Trailing 17-0 with 1:32 left in the first half, the Hornets, sparked by Matt White’s 29-yard run and a 36-yard pass completion from Parker to A.J. Nixon, drove for 80 yards for their first score beginning a run of 28 unanswered points.
Parker was key, of course. He had to make the emotional adjustment and Patton, a former star quarterback at Bryant and in college, was on that assignment, taking his quarterback aside at one point.
“It was just one quarterback to another,” Patton related. “I know where he was at because I’ve been there. When you get into a situation where you’ve got people coming (on blitzes) from everywhere, all these receivers that are wide open for everybody to see, it’s tough to see it.
“Lance was getting a little bit rattled, forcing the football,” Patton explained. “All of his passes were a little bit high and that told me he was real uptight. So I just pulled him aside and basically told him, ‘Hey, relax. Play within the system, play within yourself and look for the short pass first.’
“We came out right before half and we hit a couple of short passes and it opened up some things down the field. And, at halftime, Lance — there’s nobody that has more confidence in himself — Lance is a great quarterback. He can do the job and, boy, he’s great when his back is against the wall. Right before the half or right at the end of a game when we have to drive the football, he does a great job. I’m glad he’s our quarterback.”
After hitting just three of his first 10 passes as Benton built its 17-0 lead, Parker connected on 7-of-8 as the Hornets rallied for a 21-17 lead. He wound up with four touchdown passes and 194 yards on 12-of-26, overcoming three interceptions.