Hornets dismiss Cats, clinch playoff bid
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
After the Bryant Hornets’ loss to Fort Smith Southside on Sept. 15, defensive coordinator Steve Griffith decided that sophomore Austin Humbard had improved to the point that he could start at middle linebacker, freeing up senior Cody Williams to move to defensive tackle. Coincidence or not, the Hornets haven’t lost since.
Williams, tackle Chad England and ends Chris Taylor and Nathan Probst just refuse to be blocked consistently and the Hornets have been able to get more and more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The latest example was Friday, Oct. 13, when the Hornets pressured Conway’s senior quarterback Casey Cooper into a 5 for 17 passing performance including an interception after he had completed 21 of 36 passes the year before against the Hornets. Cooper was sacked twice for 27 yards in losses. Both came at a pivotal point in the contest which the Hornets wound up winning handily 27-7, clinching a spot in the Class 7A State playoffs.
Bryant’s lead had just been cut to 14-7 and Conway’s Chris Wardlow had just intercepted a pass and returned it to the Bryant 27. On first down there, Cooper dropped back to pass and before he even had time to look downfield, Williams was on him. Cooper struggled to get free falling back further and further with Williams clinging to him every step of the way before eventually bringing him down on the other side of the midfield stripe. The officials were generous enough to spot the ball at the Bryant 42, a loss of 15. The Wampus Cats managed to get back to the 30 before running out of downs and a 47-yard field goal attempt failed.
Still, Conway kept some momentum forcing the only three-and-out for the Bryant offense all game. On fourth-and-12 from their own 18, the Hornets punted. Williams boomed a 39-yard kick that had to be fair caught but Conway had good field position at its own 43. Two plays later, it was third-and-6 at the 47 when Williams, fighting off a blocker who was flagged for holding, got to Cooper again for a 12-yard sack that forced a short Conway punt.
The Wampus Cats never threatened to score again in the contest. In fact, they managed just one first down the rest of the game and that came on a scramble by Cooper deep in his own end.
And the defense got a big lift from the Bryant offense in that regard. Bryant controlled the ball for nearly 19 minutes of the 24 minutes of the second half, piling up 404 yards of total offense in the game and 24 first downs (to just six for Conway).
“I was very pleased with our effort,” stated head coach Paul Calley. “The kids knew what was at stake and they stepped it up. We had a little scare there in the second quarter. We had a chance to put them away but we throw the interception. Luckily, Cody Williams gets the sack. It kind of settles us down, stops their momentum. The second half, I didn’t realize we ran as many plays as we did but we controlled the second half with the offense, kept our defense off the field.”
“Our offense clicked,” said junior receiver Jake Jackson, who grabbed a game-high nine passes for 78 yards. “We tried to run the ball a little bit, then throw it pretty short then tried to go deep every once in awhile. We just executed real well tonight.”
“With the exception of that one interception, we moved it all night,” agreed Bryant offensive coordinator Brooks Coatney. “We probably could’ve put up two or three more touchdowns. We moved the ball probably better than we have all season. We felt that, from the start, we had a good game plan. (Conway) made some adjustments to some of the stuff we did early in the game. The interception was a momentum-changer. That kind of got us out of sync a little bit and we didn’t get it back until maybe a quarter later.”
As a twist for the offense, Landon Montgomery, who started the season in the defensive line, was deployed as a tight end at times and sophomore Kaleb Jobe worked at fullback. That not only helped the produce 229 yards on the ground but the passing attack too. With Montgomery in the game, Conway committed one more player to the defensive line, meaning one fewer back in coverage.
“(Landon) really did a good job,” Coatney noted. “We worked on that all week. It’s something we’re going to look at trying to do. Landon’s a good athlete and we feel like at tight end, he can help us out. And Kaleb’s done a good job. We’re definitely going to keep them in the package and keep trying to work it throughout the season when that’s what the defense is giving us.”
Calley pointed to the entire offensive line as a key to the offense’s success. “The offensive line played really well, controlled the line of scrimmage,” he noted. “We executed. Our backs ran hard, our receivers blocked well, caught the ball well. I think, finally, our maturity level has increased. We’re getting near where we need to be.”
The Hornets got out to a fast start. After forcing a Conway punt, quarterback Matt Schrader, who was 17 of 29 for 175 yards and a touchdown, passed 13 yards to Taylor Masters then handed off to Dustin Seljan who broke off tackle and down the right sideline for a 53-yard touchdown.
After forcing another punt, the Hornets drove 49 yards in four plays, helped along by a pair of pass interference penalties one of which overcame a holding penalty against Bryant. Schrade capped the drive with a 12-yard pass to Masters for the score and with 5:42 left in the first quarter, the Hornets were already ahead 14-0.
“They came out in a little bit different defense than we expected,” mentioned Jackson. “We were able to pick it apart a little bit and find the open zones.”
Conway answered with its lone scoring drive of the game. On the first play of the drive, Cooper fumbled the snap but snatched it back up and made a perfect throw down the seam to Isaiah Jackson for 33 yards. Five plays later, the Hornets appeared to have the Cats stopped when a third-down run by Jackson came up short of a first down at the Bryant 11. But a personal foul for a hit out of bounds gave Conway a first down at the 6. From there, Cooper passed to Luke Pruitt for the score.
Bryant gained a field position advantage when the two teams exchanged punts. The Hornets took over at midfield with 10:44 left in the half. They marched to the 21 but on a second-down play, Wardlow jumped a hitch pass and intercepted. Schrader wound up saving a touchdown by chasing Wardlow down.
After Williams and the defense made their two stands, the Hornets made a bid to add to their lead late in the half, driving from its own 37 to the Conway 3. With :08 left, the Hornets wanted to take one shot at scoring a touchdown before kicking a field goal. Schrader, who had completed three consecutive passes on the drive and rushed for 20 yards along the way, rolled to his right but juggled the ball as he started into his throwing motion. The timing of the play was wrecked and he was sacked as the half ended.
“I wish we could’ve got the score right before half,” Calley allowed. “It would’ve made me feel a lot better.”
As it turned out, however, the Hornets took the second half kickoff and got back on the board. Both teams had to endure major penalties during the drive (Bryant lost 29 yards and gained 30 in the process) as the Hornets drove to the 6. An illegal block pushed them back to the 21. Schrader kept to the 11 but there the drive stalled and Jordan Knight came on to kick the first of two field goals in the game, making it 17-7.
Conway wound up with just seven offensive snaps in the third quarter. With 1:12 left, Jaycob Baker fumbled at the Cats’ 28 and Probst recovered. A play later, Masters made a splendid catch and run for a 24-yard pass play to the 1, setting up Schrader’s sneak for the TD that made it 24-7 with 16 seconds left in the period.
After Conway had to punt again without a first down, the Hornets drove from their own 46 to the Conway 29 where the drive stalled. They turned the ball over on downs at the 25 with 7:47 left in the game.
On the next play, however, linebacker Matt Bonner intercepted Cooper’s pass and returned it to the 26.
A pair of runs, including a19-yarder, by sophomore Aspen Trevino reached the 3 but a disputed holding penalty pushed Bryant back and Knight came on to boot his second field goal, setting the final score with just under five minutes left in the game.
Still, Conway couldn’t must a first down and had to punt. The Bryant reserves filtered into the game and behind the running of senior Ben Smith (four carries for 30 yards all in that last possession), the Hornets drained the clock and celebrated their sixth straight trip to the playoffs.
“It feels awesome,” Jackson enthused. “I’m ready to go for that conference championship now.”
That quest was due to continue at Cabot on Friday, Oct. 20.