Hornets knock off No. 1 team — Bryan’s clutch kicks doom Cats
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
In a game that would’ve served as an all-time classic State championship battle, the Bryant Hornets stunned the previously unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Conway Wampus Cats 36-33 in overtime when sophomore Todd Bryan booted a 27-yard, game-winning field goal.
The win improved Bryant to 7-2 overall and 4-2 in conference play and, coupled with Little Rock Parkview’s 35-7 win over North Little Rock, clinched a playoff berth for the Hornets. It’s the first time ever that Bryant has reached the Class AAAAA postseason two seasons in succession.
The Hornets will either be the No. 3 or No. 4 team from the AAAAA-Central, depending on the outcome of the final nights of the regular season, Thursday, Nov. 7 and Friday, Nov. 8. Most likely, the Hornets are bound for West Memphis in the first round of the playoffs but they could still be going to Cabot or Fort Smith depending on the outcome of several games. Bryant was set to visit North Little Rock for the first time on Thursday to wrap up its regular season.
Bryan’s game-winner, which extended his school record for a season to 13, came after the Bryant defense rose up in the first series of overtime to hold Conway scoreless. And just before that, the Bryant offense had put together a clutch drive to set up Bryan’s 12th field goal of the season, a 27-yarder with :17 left to tie the game at 33, producing the necessity of overtime.
In those closing moments as in the entire game, it was as complete a team victory as can be imagined.
“Conway was No. 1 for a reason,” commented head coach Daryl Patton. “They had a very good ballclub, very deserving of the ranking. We knew we had to play head and shoulders better than we’d played all year and we did. Our kids played well. They played hard. They played with a great deal of emotion and intensity. If we play like that, we can beat anybody in the state.
“I’m just real proud of our defense for stepping up and slowing down (Conway fullback) Peyton Hillis a little bit,” he added. “I’m very proud of our offense for just finishing drives. We got touchdowns. And our special teams — we had a couple of breakdowns on special teams, but overall, it won the game for us, our kicking and PATs.”
To that end, note:
The Bryant Hornets’ interior defense practiced much of the week prior to their showdown with top-ranked Conway without a football. They weren’t being punished and it wasn’t because the program couldn’t afford them. (Footballs, yes; replacement for their antiquated field house, no.)
You see, against Conway’s single-wing offense, looking for the ball can get you in trouble. Ball fakes and misdirection can get a defender flattened if he’s doing that.
What defensive coaches Steve Griffith and Brad Stroud wanted to do was make their charges concentrate on their technique and their keys. Conway doesn’t run many plays on offense, but the plays they run, they run well. So well, in fact, that their thunder-and-lightning pair of running backs, bruising fullback Peyton Hillis and speedy halfback Kevin Wardlow had combined for over 2,000 yards rushing in just eight games.
Coach after coach on the Bryant staff confirmed it: “It was the best week of practice we’ve had all week.”
And it may be hard to say that when you give up 33 points in a game that the defense played well, but there was no doubt in the coaches’ minds. The defensive work of the Hornets was a big key in Friday’s 36-33 overtime victory.
Conway scored five touchdowns, it’s true, but two of them came on big plays, plays in which one wrong move (and perhaps an undetected hold or block in the back) made the difference between 6 yards and 6 points. Wardlow’s 79-yard touchdown run on the first play of the game accounted for Conway’s first touchdown and his 73-yard pass reception accounted for its’ last. In between, Wardlow returned a kickoff 82 yards for a TD and Conway had to just drive 28 yards for another score following a Bryant fumble.
Just once were the Wampus Cats able to sustain a drive and play keepaway at all from the Hornets’ offense, a tactic that had frustrated Bryant in its two losses on the season.
Yes, Hillis and Wardlow both surpassed 100 yards in the game but when the game was on the line, the Wampus Cats couldn’t get it done on the ground. With the Hornets leading 30-26, Conway forced a punt and took possession at its own 25. The Cats inched their way to the Bryant 25, thanks in large part to a 22-yard option keeper by quarterback Blake Edwards. On a third-and-3, Hillis was piled up for no gain. On fourth-and-3, Wardlow was dropped by Josh White and Ronnie Spivey for a loss of 6 and Bryant took over on downs with 7:39 to play.
White, by the way, had been moved inside from his defensive end spot to help contend with Conway’s inside muscle. The senior came through with a season-high 14 tackles, unofficially. Middle linebacker Jon Newlin got in on 12 stops and defensive end Aaron Johnson 10.
The Hornets ran out of downs after getting to the Conway 39 and the onus was on the defense again. This time, they stuffed Hillis on consecutive plays and forced Conway to punt with just over four minutes to play.
An interception that served as well as a punt on a third-and-18 from the Bryant 40, gave Conway the ball back with 1:54 to play and that’s when Wardlow lined up at wingback and somehow got open deep on a play-action pass. He scored despite an apparent clip to give Conway a 33-30 lead with 1:43 to go.
Thanks to the clutch drive by the offense and the pressure-packed 27-yard field goal by sophomore Todd Bryan, the defense got another shot and came through big in overtime.
Conway got the ball first from the Bryant 10. Hillis was held to 4 yards on two carries then Wardlow was hauled down on a third-down sweep.
The Hornets were flagged for a face mask penalty, however, which was tacked onto the end of the run, moving the ball to the 2. Given third down again, Conway turned back to Hillis who reached the lip of the goal line where sophomore Bryan Griffith, a 5-11, 170-pound safety, stood up the 6-1, 235-pound fullback and denied him the end zone.
After a timeout, Conway decided to go for the touchdown from the 1 but a guard lined up offsides and the play never got under way. The penalty forced Conway to attempt a field goal which Blake Ragan missed wide to the left, setting up Bryan’s game-winning field goal on the first play of Bryant’s overtime turn.
In the AAAAA-South Conference, the Bryant Hornets offensive coaches had pretty much learned how the other league teams were going to try to stop their spread offense. They knew what to expect, what to prepare for because of the familiarity they’d developed through playing those teams year after year.
But in 2002, the team’s first in the AAAAA-Central, the Hornets were playing teams they’d never faced before. And not since their game with the Little Rock Catholic Rockets were the coaches at all certain about what they’d see from the opposition. There were a lot of adjustments made on the fly.
On Friday, Nov. 1, however, the Hornets came up against a team which with they were more familiar. The Hornets and the Conway Wampus Cats had run into each other four times in three seasons (and had, incidentally, developed a real grudge rivalry in the process).
In their previous meeting in the first round of the 2001 Class AAAAA Playoffs, the Cats had used a three-man defensive front to frustrate the Hornets who, nonetheless, made a furious comeback only to fall short 28-23. That’s what the Bryant coaches expected and it’s exactly what they got. And, according to Paul Calley the team’s co-offensive coordinator, head coach Daryl Patton did his best job of play-calling all year as the Hornets knocked off the top-ranked Wampus Cats 36-33 in overtime.
But all the play-calling you want goes for not without execution and that the Hornets did as well. It was senior quarterback Lance Parker’s finest hour as he accounted for 437 yards of total offense, threw for three touchdowns and ran for another on his way to earning Associated Press Player of the Week honors and the week’s Landers Award nomination from KATV in Little Rock. He’s also been named the Student Sports All Power Bar National Player of the Week for the region.
Parker completed 20 of 37 passes for 313 yards and rushed 17 times for 123 yards, unofficially. Patton took the wraps off his quarterback in the running game. After an injury ended the quarterbacking time of junior backup Scott Peeler, Parker was discouraged from running too much in hopes of avoiding injury. As it was, he was still Bryant’s leading rusher going into the Conway game based on his early-season production which included 100-yard days against Shiloh Christian and Benton.
And Parker had plenty of help. Five different receivers caught more than three passes each, including some eye-poppers. Brandon St. Pierre’s run after a catch in the flat on an 11-yard touchdown play that gave Bryant a 30-20 lead late in the third quarter was nothing short of spectacular. And sophomore Ritchie Wood caught a pair of scoring strikes, his first varsity touchdowns. Zach Cardinal’s five receptions averaged 21 yards and seemed to come at the crucial times. Too, Calley, who tutors the offensive line, called it their best performance of the season.
But, what separated this Hornets performances from past was the way they responded to adversity. Most impressively when Conway’s stunning 73-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Blake Edwards to wingback Kevin Wardlow left Bryant, after leading 30-20, trailing 33-30 with 1:43 left in the game.
The Hornets offense had faced similar comeback opportunities (with more time) in both of its losses (13-12 to Little Rock Central and 26-20 to Little Rock McClellan). This time, however, they came through starting with an impressive scramble by Parker who wove his way for 19 yards to near midfield through the Conway defense. A play later, Parker flipped a pass down the middle to St. Pierre who made a sliding catch at the Conway 33. That was followed by a 22-yard connection between the same duo down the left seam to the 11.
After a penalty moved them back, Parker found Wood for 6 yards to the 10 with time running out. The clock stopped when Parker’s pass into the end zone toward Wood was knocked away at the last second by Conway’s Quincy Strickland. After another incompletion, Bryan came on and, despite appearing to kick the laces on the ball, got enough leg into it to clear the uprights to tie the game.
Call it Bryant’s version of “The Drive.”
Even before that, the Hornets proved to be resilient. Conway scored early and often, on the very first play from scrimmage, in fact. The Hornets tied it on their second possession, marching 80 yards in seven plays and overcoming a 16-yard holding penalty along the way. The TD came on a 37-yard strike from Parker to Wood that converted a third-and-11.
It didn’t stay tied long, however. Wardlow returned the kickoff 82 yards for a touchdown then the Hornets fumbled on the resulting kickoff. Conway took advantage, driving 28 yards for a third score, taking a 20-7 lead at the end of the third quarter.
Again, Bryant answered with the help of a good return on the kickoff by A.J. Nixon. A 47-yard pass from Parker to Cardinal and a 15-yard QB draw set up Parker’s 1-yard sneak into the end zone.
The teams traded punts until Bryant got the ball with 2:16 left in the half and, shades of things to come, put together a two-minute drill that moved the ball from their own 28 to the Conway 5 where, on the last play of the half, Bryan drilled a 21-yard field goal to make it 20-17.
And the Hornets continued the onslaught in the second half, scoring on each of their first two possessions. Wood’s second TD, a 29-yard reception from Parker, capped a 62-yard march on the seventh play, moments after Parker had converted a third-and-3 with a 13-yard run. That put Bryant ahead for the first time, 24-20.
An interception by Bo Lee got the ball back for Bryant. Lee’s return reached the Conway 37 and, two plays later, the Hornets appeared to have another score on a 34-yard pass from Parker to Cardinal. A penalty negated that TD but hardly dented the Hornets’ resolve. Eventually, St. Pierre’s scintillating catch and run produced the points, making it a 23-point run by Bryant for a 30-20 lead.
The offense was so productive, it ran a season-high 71 plays (not counting punts). Only twice — once in each half — did they go three plays and out.
“I think the first drive of the second half, when we went down and scored to take the lead, I think that gave our kids confidence that ‘Hey, we’re going to win this game,’”said Patton.
Talk about pressure . . .
Back when the Bryant Hornets were running conditioning sprints at the end of practice most every day, the number was often determined by how well sophomore placekicker Todd Bryan, sophomore holder Travis Wood and junior snapper Trent Gephart performed.
The team would gather round and raise a ruckus as Rice snapped to Wood, Wood whipped the ball into place and Bryan would, in rhythm, put foot to ball on a series of field goal attempts. With each one made, the number of sprints were — much to the team’s relief — reduced a bit.
So, when Bryan was called upon to kick a game-tying field goal in the closing seconds of Friday’s game with the Conway Wampus Cats, then a game-winner in overtime of the wildly entertaining 36-33 contest, it wasn’t his first experience with shouldering a little pressure.
And he had kicked the Hornets to victory before too. Back in week two of the season, in the Salt Bowl III showdown with Benton at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, Bryan and his special teams partners performed for a game-tying extra point in the third quarter and a decisive field goal with 5:15 left in the game.
But then came the slump. Though he kicked three field goals in the first half against Little Rock Catholic, Bryan missed on four extra points. They weren’t crucial, of course, since the Hornets rolled to a 40-25 win but there was concern.
And that concern increased a couple of weeks later when another missed extra point proved costly in a 13-12 loss to Little Rock Central.
At that point, Bryant coaches set aside a little more time for the trio to work on their craft. Because all three are very promising receivers (T.Wood has played a lot in the secondary too), they had been preoccupied with other chores. But the extra work has paid off, as Conway will attest.
Bryan has kicked a school single-season record 13 field goals, just three shy of the state mark.
It was a great finish after a rough start for the Bryant special teams. Bryan, who had developed a knack from kicking off in the end zone, couldn’t get one there on the cold, damp night. And it came back to haunt the Hornets when Kevin Wardlow returned a kick 82 yards for a touchdown to break a 7-7 tie late in the first quarter.
Moments later, a fumble on Bryant’s kickoff return cost the team possession and led to a short Conway touchdown drive that gave the Wampus Cats a 20-7 lead.
The coverage was much better after that though a couple of penalties improved Conway’s field position along the way.
A fake punt that went awry midway through the second quarter, but Bryan averaged over 34 yards per punt and the Wampus Cats’ best return was just 5 yards.
Travis Wood handled five Conway punts efficiently and the kickoff return team came through with some productive work including a springboard runback by A.J. Nixon after Conway had rallied to take a 33-30 lead. Nixon’s return set up Bryant’s drive for a tying field goal.