Third-quarter burst keeps Hornets unbeaten
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
CONWAY — It was one of those dreaded sandwich games.
Like an old slab of pickle loaf on expiration day, slipped between two soft, fresh slices of your favorite bread, it was what was placed before the No. 1 ranked Bryant Hornets and they had to choke it down even though they weren’t particularly excited about at first.
The first slice of bread was a battle for the lead in the 7A-Central Conference, at home, against the Russellville Cyclones. Tasted good: the Hornets won on a last-second field goal, 10-7. The second slice of bread looms ahead, another first-place showdown, at home, with the resurgent Cabot Panthers on Friday, Oct. 19.
In between, the Hornets had to go on the road and play a Conway team that’s amidst a disappointing two-win season, marred by injuries and backed into a corner and fighting for its life (and fading post-season hopes) like a wounded . . . well, Wampus Cat.
To make it perfectly clear: It’s not the Wampus Cats who were pickle loaf — far from it — particularly their do-it-all back Isaiah Jackson. But it was one of those games.
Coaches — most fans, too — with all their experience, are well aware of the dangers of such a sandwich game but few, if any, have been able to figure out the formula for convincing 16-, 17- and 18-year old players, riding the wave of an unbeaten season and that high ranking, that they need to be just as intense and focused on the pickle loaf games as they are on the bread games.
Sometimes, it just takes a shot in the chops from the opponent to get their attention and, hopefully, they come around before it’s too late.
The Hornets, who trailed 6-0 at the half, having run just 13 plays on offense as Conway controlled the ball with its running game, surged to 17 points in the third quarter, sparked by some spectacular special teams play including two more blocked kicks by senior Raylen Cantrell, and escaped with a 17-6 win over the Wampus Cats to retain their ranking and improve to 6-0-1 overall, 4-0 in the league.
The Bryant defense came into the game allowing an average of just 55 yards rushing per game with only one team (Fort Smith Southside) gaining over 100 yards in a game. But Conway had 140 by halftime and finished with 222 yards, thanks in large part to Jackson’s 141 yards on 28 carries working at halfback in the first half and shotgun quarterback in the second half.
The senior also threw three complete passes for 23 yards and caught one for 14.
Fortunately, the Hornets’ D bent but didn’t break in the first half. Despite controlling the ball and the clock, the Wampus Cats’ drives stalled and only produced a pair of Ben Riner field goals.
On offense, the Hornets had just four possessions before intermission. The first lasted one play and resulted in a fumble that Conway recovered at the Bryant 40. The Cats got to the 5 where Bryant held and Riner kicked a 3-pointer from 22 yards out.
The second Bryant series came up a yard short of a first down and resulted in a punt. Conway came back with a drive to the Hornets’ 24 where Chad England cut down sophomore quarterback Chase Calcagni for a loss of 2 and the Wampus Cats couldn’t recover. A third-down reverse pass thrown by Jackson was intercepted by Dijon Benton in the end zone.
Bryant finally managed its initial first down with less than 20 seconds left in the quarter on an 11-yard pass from Logan Parker to Jake Jackson. But a fumbled snap cost the Hornets and they wound up punting again.
This time, Conway ate up almost 10 minutes with a drive from its 21 to the Bryant 13 where the Hornets held. Riner kicked his second field goal from 33 yards away to make it 6-0.
In turn, the Bryant offense rapidly worked up the field. Parker kept for 14 then threw a 19-yard strike to Tim Floyd and a 23-yarder to Taylor Masters who made a spectacular leaping catch at the 16. A play later, however, Parker was looking for Jackson in the end zone and his receiver slipped down. Conway safety Nick Lankford intercepted and the 6-0 lead held at the break.
It was a different Bryant team in the second half.
“Fortunately for us,” acknowledged head coach Paul Calley. “We didn’t come ready to play. It was the intensity level, focus before the game. I don’t know (why). I wish I knew. I guess it’s me. I guess I’m not stern enough, strict enough.”
At the half, Calley said, “We talked about the defense that Conway was running is the defense that we want to see. If we could draw up a defense to play against, that’s what we want to see. They’re playing it and we can’t do anything with it.
“Defensively, we were just waiting for something to happen instead of attacking and they were running it right down our throats,” he continued. “They’re offense controlled everything. The second half, the difference was, as usual, our special teams came through in a big way.”
The defense set the tone. On Conway’s first play, cornerback Adam Harris came up aggressively and made a nice open-field tackle on the elusive Isaiah Jackson to spoil a sweep with a 2-yard loss. On second down, linebacker Dexter Barksdale, a senior making his first varsity start and got in on 17 tackles, pounded wingback Lester Robertson for no gain. On third down, Jackson managed to grind out 6 yards but had the ball knocked away. Conway recovered but only to try a punt.
And “try” is the operative word.
The Hornets flew through the Conway blockers and Cantrell blocked the kick with Harris scooping up the deflection and getting to the Wampus Cat 11 with the large Bryant contingent of fans raising a ruckus.
After a third-down pass to the end zone was dropped, however, the Hornets had to settle for Austin Bradley’s 23-yard field goal attempt. The junior, who kicked the game-winner against Russellville the week before, drilled it to get Bryant on the board.
On Conway’s next offensive play, Nathan Probst and Austin Humbard pounded Jackson for no gain.
Humbard wound up with a whopping 23 tackles in the game. Ethan Passmore was in on 12 stops, Benton and Cruse nine each.
Robertson got free for 7 yards but a penalty pushed the Wampus Cats back. On third-and-9, Barksdale cut down Calcagni at the line of scrimmage to force another punt attempt.
The attempt, however, failed again. Cantrell blocked the kick and, this time, recovered it himself at the 11. It was the senior defensive end’s fifth blocked kick of the season.
On the next play, Parker and Masters hooked up for the touchdown and the Hornets suddenly held the lead, 10-6.
Conway wouldn’t manage a first down on its next possession either. Humbard sacked Calcagni for a loss of 10 then Logan Cruse sniffed out a swing pass to Robertson and blasted the receiver on a loss of a yard to force another punt.
This time, it was Isaiah Jackson who came on to punt for Conway and he managed to get the left-footed kick away, barely. Jake Jackson fielded the rolling punt at the Conway 44 and returned it to the 32.
Three plays later, though, the Hornets faced a fourth-and-4 at the 26. They went for it and Parker found Masters on a 13-yard pass for the first down. On the next play, that duo clicked again for the touchdown and, with Bradley’s PAT, the final score was on the board with 1:38 left in the third quarter.
“Our defense came out fired up,” said Cruse, who’s been playing with a cast on his left hand since suffering a break in the Southside game. “We didn’t really make any adjustments (at halftime), we just told ourselves we’ve got to play harder and we can’t let them score. Part of it was just our intensity level picked up a little bit, I think.”
With their star running back at quarterback running an Arkansas Razorback-like wildcat offense, the Wampus Cats drove to the Bryant 6 but when Jackson was stopped for no gain by the middle of the Bryant defense on a third-and-3, Riner came on to attempt another field goal. This time, however, a high snap messed up the timing and his kick popped up in the air and never made it to the goal posts.
Bryant made a bid to add to the lead but got a bad break when an apparent pass interference was not called on a throw from Parker towards Floyd around the Conway 20. After a motion penalty — one of just four against the Hornets in the game — Humbard punted.
With 4:57 left and trailing by 11, Conway kept it on the ground but moved to the Bryant 46 where Dakota Cornett broke a 10-yard run but was separated from the football. Cantrell recovered for the Hornets at the 37 with 1:14 left to play.