Hornets survive ’Cats, take title, top seed
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
NORTH LITTLE ROCK — In just about every competitive football game there are going to be times when the breaks go against a team and times when they don’t. The key is how each team responds. How does it respond to adversity? Does it take advantage of its opportunities?
On Thursday, Nov. 4, the difference between the Bryant Hornets and the North Little Rock Charging Wildcats may have boiled down to those questions in the Hornets’ conference-championship clinching 41-29 victory, regarding breaks that each team received from disputed officiating decisions.
The first break was North Little Rock’s. It came with 2:11 left in the first half. Bryant led 21-12 and had thoughts of increasing that lead. On a first down play at their own 40, the Hornets went to the air. Anthony Mask’s pass looked like it would be picked off but North Little Rock’s Fred McElwee juggled the ball then dropped it. Both teams scrambled after the loose ball but, at first, it was ruled an incompletion. The officials got together, however, and that decision was over-ruled. North Little Rock was awarded the football at the Bryant 47, a guess at the proper spot.
So, would the Wildcats take advantage to grab some momentum and cut into the lead before halftime, or would the Bryant defense overcome the bad break and protect the lead?
Bryant prevailed. Three plays failed to produce and, with :48 left, the Cats punted.
The second incident occurred midway through the fourth quarter. After trailing 35-15, North Little Rock had charged back to within 35-29 and had the momentum. Bryant faced a third-and-14 from its own 28. A stop and the Wildcats, who had scored on each of their previous two possessions would force a Bryant punt.
And, sure enough, Mask’s third-down pass fell incomplete. But, oddly, intended receiver Richie Wood pulled up short on the route to the ball. Play stopped and the officials ruled the play didn’t count; that, by rule, it would be played over because there had been a whistle blown in the North Little Rock crowd.
So, would the Hornets take advantage and hang onto the football to each some more clock, or would the North Little Rock defense overcome the bad break and sustain its momentum?
Bryant, again, prevailed. Mask completed a 16-yard pass to Dustin Holland and the Hornets not only kept the drive alive, they proceeded to eat clock and yardage. In fact, they drove for a clinching touchdown, overcoming a pair of holding penalties along the way.
The stuff of champions.
The win improved the Hornets to 9-1 overall this season, 6-1 in conference play and tied with Little Rock Central for the league championship. Because Bryant had defeated Central this season, the top seed from the conference for the Class AAAAA playoffs went to the Hornets; and with it, homefield advantage throughout, starting with the opener against Jacksonville (6-3), the No. 4 team from the AAAAA-East, on Friday, Nov. 12.
North Little Rock fell to 6-4 on the season but will represent the conference as the No. 4 seed. But, the Cats must open the playoffs at Springdale against the No. 1 team in the state.
A loss to North Little Rock would’ve put the Hornets in that predicament.
Actually, it was a game filled with adversity for the Hornets. There were 23 penalties in the game, 12 on Bryant. The Hornets trailed in the game for awhile, the first time that’s happened since the Oct. 8 game against Central. The teams each had four turnovers.
“The game was poorly officiated,” Bryant head coach Paul Calley stated. “Sometimes it worked against us, a couple of times it worked for us. It was just bad on both sides.”
Of the interception that wasn’t and then was, the coach said, “The official’s explanation was that two officials said that he caught the ball, fumbled it and fell on it. But the official that was five yards from the play said he didn’t have possession. He was over-ruled.”
But the secret ingredient to the win for Bryant was field position and sophomore punter Cody Williams had a big part in that. Williams, who took over the punting chores mid-season, has been solid but, against North Little Rock, he not only averaged over 40 yards a punt, he kicked the Cats inside their 10 three times. And on one of those punts, a Wildcats fumble set up a very short Bryant touchdown drive.
“Cody came through for us big time,” Calley acknowledged. “When we had to have a big punt, he delivered. For a sophomore to come in under that kind of pressure and deliver, that’s big time.”
The Hornets’ defense, which held North Little Rock to a net of just 50 yards rushing but gave up some big plays in the passing game, put points on the board. In fact, the first score of the game came with 9:06 left in the first quarter. North Little Rock’s Matt Monroe fumbled at the Cats’ 29 and Bryant safety Hunter Nugent scooped up the loose ball and sprinted down the sideline for the touchdown.
North Little Rock, taking advantage of McElwee’s first interception of the game, scored just before the end of the quarter. A play after drawing the Hornets offsides to convert at third-and-1 at the Bryant 36, quarterback Josh Dixon, impressively accurate on long passes, connected with Jamar Love for a 31-yard touchdown.
But the extra point was not just blocked, but caught by Bryant’s Tommy Byington and the Hornets retained the lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, a short kick bounced off a Hornets receiver and was recovered by North Little Rock. The Cats took advantage as Dixon completed a 29-yard pass to Larry Jenkins, then scored from the 1 on a quarterback sneak.
A try for two failed but North Little Rock had a 12-7 with 1:19 left in the quarter.
And, on the ensuing kickoff, Bryant couldn’t corral a pooch kick and North Little Rock recovered at the Hornets 34.
“I guess we were kind of tight going in,” commented Calley. “I thought once we got that defensive touchdown and went up 7-0 that’d help loosen us up but it didn’t.”
On first down, however, Dixon’s bad pitch on the option wound up being kicked around by both teams before North Little Rock recovered back at its own 38. Two plays later, the Cats had to punt.
But Chad Godfrey’s kick only converted 13 yards and Bryant took advantage, driving 54 yards in five plays. Mask, who was 17-of-40 for 259 yards in the game but took a pounding, found Richie Wood behind the secondary down the right sideline for the 44-yard TD.
Wood, the senior who added two to his school record for touchdown receptions in the game, latched onto 11 of Mask’s aerials for a whopping 171 yards in the game. He’s now caught 29 touchdown passes in his career including 12 this season which is one shy of tying another school mark.
“I thought our skill people played well on offense,” Calley said. “Our offensive line didn’t play well. I was disappointed in just their fundamental execution. Sometimes they looked like they hadn’t been coached all year.
“On defense, our line didn’t play like they had been playing,” he continued. “Our secondary got beat deep a few times which normally doesn’t happen. That had something to do with us not putting pressure on the quarterback.”
Part of that, Calley said was the way North Little Rock was pass blocking.
“I talked to the officials before the game and asked them to look for that and there was never any discrepancy in our interpretation of the rules. But during the game, they flip-flopped on me and just basically said my interpretation was wrong.
“They would stand our defensive tackles up with a guard and the (offensive) tackle would come in behind them and grab their legs and pull them to the ground,” explained the coach. “That’s illegal. No. 1, you can’t do that. When you have somebody posted, you can’t come in with another blocker and block them but they weren’t just blocking with a second guy, they were tackling. That’s what bothered me the most because we discussed it before the game.”
The coach also noted that the North Little Rock players were using their teammates and Bryant players to jump up on field goal and extra point attempts, a penalty that burned Little Rock Central against the Hornets earlier this season.
“But when we had to have plays, we got them,” Calley acknowledged. “I thought Richie Wood was tremendous. He made a couple of extraordinary catches. Anthony stood in there among all that pressure and delivered the ball. He took a lot of shots, some I thought were late.”
The two teams traded punts after that with Bryant gradually gaining a field position advantage. With 6:16 left in the half, the Hornets took over at the North Little Rock 44. Passes of 7, 17 and 21 yards from Mask to Wood got the Hornets to the 6. From there, Mask threw to Jon Isbell for the score.
Todd Bryan kicked the extra point and Bryant led 21-12. It was a lead that, despite the controversial call on the interception, held at the half.
North Little Rock opened the third quarter with a drive to the Bryant 18 but when a third-down pass fell incomplete, the Cats settled for a field goal. Phenomenally, that 3 points doubled what the Hornets’ defense had given up in the third quarter all season.
And it would be all North Little Rock would get in the period.
It stayed 21-15 until Williams lofted a punt inside the North Little Rock 5 that return man Brandon Dokes decided to return. But, he dropped it and Bryant’s Zach Kitchens recovered at the 1.
A substitution penalty negated Mask’s sneak for a score then a fumble that the Hornets got back pushed them out to the 13. But, on second down, Mask lofted a pass toward the right corner that the 6-3 Wood went up and got over the North Little Rock defender for the touchdown. Bryan kicked it to 28-15.
The two teams traded punts but again Williams came up big. He boomed a 53-yarder that was downed at the North Little Rock 7. Three plays later, the Cats were punting out of their own end zone and Godfrey, under big pressure, got off just a 12-yard kick.
Given possession at the North Little Rock 21, the Hornets again cashed in. Mask passed 11 yards to Isbell after a short run by Brandon Butler. That set up Butler’s touchdown run from the 6. Bryan kicked it to 35-15 with :27 left in the quarter and it looked like the Hornets might have the game in the bag.
But Dixon and Love hooked up on a 73-yard pass to open the fourth quarter to cut the lead to 13.
On Bryant’s possession, Mask and Holland connected for 36 yards but the drive stalled at the North Little Rock 34. This time, Williams couldn’t keep his punt out of the end zone and, on the touchback, North Little Rock took over at the 20.
Dixon completed 4 of 7 passes on the resulting drive capped by a perfectly-placed 37-yard completion to Jenkins, who was double covered, for the touchdown with 8:33 to go.
Suddenly, the Bryant lead was back down to 6 points.
When the whistle from the crowd had kept the Hornets’ subsequent drive alive, Butler and the offensive line began to establish control. But, after the first holding penalty negated a 12-yard run, Mask and Wood teamed up for an 11-yard completion that was just enough to convert a third down from the Bryant 43.
Another holding penalty gave the Hornets a first-and-17 at the North Little Rock 43. This time, however, the Hornets got it all back (and more) on one play, another spectacular catch by Wood down the right sideline for 32 yards.
A play later, Butler crashed into the end zone from 8 yards out and, with Bryan’s kick, Bryant held a 42-29 advantage with 3:09 left to play.
Both of North Little Rock’s possessions after that ended with interceptions, the first by Bryan at the Hornets’ 25, the second by Nugent at the Bryant 18 to end the game.