Hornets scrap past NLR, clinch trip to playoffs
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
On one of the biggest plays of the Bryant Hornets’ 14-13 overtime win over the North Little Rock Charging Wildcats on Halloween night at Bryant Stadium, Chris Rycraw, a running back playing quarterback, took a shotgun snap and handed off to Tanner Tolbert, a cornerback playing flanker on a speed sweep to the left. Tolbert pulled up and lofted a pass down the left sideline toward Dijon Benton, a safety turned wide receiver. Benton hauled in the pass at the North Little Rock 12, setting up the only score of the first 46 minutes of the contest.
The touchdown came on a one-yard sneak by sophomore quarterback Caleb Milam who was No. 4 on the depth chart in the spring, No. 3 at the beginning of the season and No. 2 entering the game. He wound up being one of four different players at the position in the game for the Hornets.
And, oh by the way, Milam’s plunge into the end zone was aided from behind by Austin Humbard, a linebacker playing fullback.
With plays that were reminiscent of those drawn up in the dirt in a sandlot game but executed impressively, the Bryant Hornets cobbled together just enough offense to augment an exhaustive bend-but-don’t-break defensive effort for a win that seemed as improbable as any in awhile.
The Hornets, 6-3 overall and 3-3 in the 7A-Central Conference, clinched a bid to the Class 7A playoffs when a bad snap ruined an extra point attempt by North Little Rock’s Kyle Cromer that would’ve send the game into a second overtime.
The size and athleticism of the Charging Wildcats seemed to tilt the field toward the south end as the two teams warmed up prior to the game.
“I was looking over there and it was, ‘Holy cow,’” admitted Bryant head coach Paul Calley. “I don’t want to say it was scary but I didn’t have a really good outlook. I don’t ever doubt our kids. I know they’re going to play hard. In the past, our equalizer has been the ability to throw and catch the ball but tonight we didn’t have that.”
With the loss for the season of junior quarterback Jimi Easterling due to damage to his foot early in the previous week’s game at Cabot, the Hornets turned to sophomore Blake Davidson with trick plays and some single-wing offense featuring Rycraw, the team’s stellar running back. And when Davidson’s left hand was caught between a pair of helmets on a play in the second quarter, Milam got the call.
And, as has been the case many times in recent seasons, the Hornets found a way against what appeared to be a superior opponent.
“Guts, heart, a little bit of coaching, determination, belief in each other, just the will to win — these guys, they’ve got it,” Calley asserted. “And we’ve been fortunate enough to have several groups that had it. If they don’t get anything else coming up through this program, they learn a work ethic, a sense of pride and they don’t ever quit. It’s unbelievable to me too to see it. But we had that will to win and our kids are smart. They know the game, not just their part of it. They just get to know the game as a whole and that’s invaluable.”
And the Bryant defense, with two, sometimes three players that weigh over 200 pounds, frustrated North Little Rock time and again despite the Wildcats’ deploying five players over 210 pounds and one at 300 on offense.
“Just like we try to do every week, we try to focus on making sure the kids line up appropriate to the different formations,” explained defensive coordinator Steve Griffith. “Then we have a read progression that we teach from day one when the kids come to us. We stress that and stress that and stress it. And when the kids read their keys and they don’t watch the game, we usually have people in position and it’s just a matter of a kid making a play when he has a chance.”
“The defense played great,” Calley concurred. “We held them when we had to, including a couple of very difficult situations with our backs against the wall. And I think that last drive, we would’ve stopped them but a lot of those guys we were playing both ways and they just didn’t have anything left in the tank.”
Indeed it took until their last possession of the game for the Wildcats to score even though they’d driven into Bryant territory six other times.
Finally with 1:24 to play, quarterback David Hope capped off a 61-yard drive with a short pass that DeAngelo Mabry turned into a 21-yard touchdown. Kyle Cromer tied it by just barely getting his extra point kick inside the right upright.
Griffith allowed that there was some concern about the defense wearing down.
“We knew with the offensive struggles that we’ve had, we were afraid we were going to be on the field a long time,” he acknowledged. “That’s just something we’d talked about all week, about finishing ballgames and not letting something slip away again at the end. We told the kids that it’s obviously going to be a difficult time for our offensive production. We’ve got some problems and that means holding (the opposition) to 14 (points) is not good enough. We’ve got to hold them to 7 or 0. We just challenged the kids to do that and they hung in there through the end and gave us a shot to go to overtime and win it.”
Bryant had a possession after the tying score but with its inexperienced quarterback and 73 yards to go to find paydirt, they played for overtime.
On offense to start the extra period, the Hornets used Rycraw as a shotgun quarterback with Humbard and fellow linebacker Dylan Chism lined up to his left as blocking backs behind the left side of the line, tight end Temple Holdcraft, tackle Jordan Jacobs and guard Scott Pilcher. Rycraw broke clean for one of the few times all night and slashed into the end zone on the first play. Austin Bradley added the crucial extra point and North Little Rock took its turn to try to answer from the 10.
It took the Wildcats three plays but Michael Tillman squeezed in for a touchdown from the 1. A bad snap, however, foiled Cromer’s extra point and the Hornets’ celebration on Senior night commenced.
“I’m very happy that we scored on the first play in overtime because (offensive coordinator) Brooks (Coatney) and I were trying desperately to find something we could have success with,” Calley said. “Our short-yardage game, our power-I set, our two tight I set have been huge for us all year. When we needed something, if we went to that, the offensive line delivers, Humbard at fullback delivers.
“We did a lot of different things,” he added. “The trick play, the reverse off the single wing speed sweep look (that set up the first touchdown) was something that we thought would work. We’ve been trying to run that single wing stuff with Chris and we needed a pass off of it. So we had one pass to the right and one pass to the left and that just happened to be it and it worked, thank the Lord, and we got down there and punched the ball in.”
Calley, incidentally, spent the game in the press box, trading places with Coatney.
“I hadn’t done it since 2002 and I’m not going to do it again anytime soon,” he declared, referring to his final season as an assistant under Daryl Patton. “You can see a lot better and I thought tonight it would give us an advantage. Maybe it did and maybe it didn’t, I don’t know. But I don’t like being up there. I want to be down there with the kids. We felt like Brooks needed to be there with the quarterbacks and I thought, with us running the ball more tonight and doing things that I feel like are my specialty, that I needed to be up there. I guess, in the end, it paid off. We won.”
No doubt, the coach missed being on the field to celebrate with his players too.
Rycraw finished with 83 yards on 28 carries in the game to give him, unofficially, 906 for the season going into the regular-season finale at Little Rock Central on Thursday, Nov. 6. The Hornets completed just three passes (by three different players) in nine attempts, a total that probably hasn’t occurred since the early to mid-90’s.
The result left Bryant and North Little Rock in a tie for fourth in the 7A-Central. With a win over Little Rock Central on Thursday, the Hornets will probably host a first-round game in the playoffs, though if Conway upsets Little Rock Catholic, it could forge a three-way tie for third and the tiebreaking point totals might leave them at home as a third seed or on the road as a fifth seed.
And with Patton and the Fayetteville Bulldogs in the second division of the 7A-West, there’s a possibility that the Hornets could draw them in the first round of the playoffs for the third year in a row.
More magic in the ‘enchanted’ north end zone
By ROB PATRICK
At the coin toss to start the overtime between the Bryant Hornets and the North Little Rock Charging Wildcats, both teams had their plans. Most in that spot win the toss and choose to play defense first so they know what they need to do when they take their turn to try to score from the opponent’s 10-yard line. The other team then chooses which end of the field to play on.
Often that comes down to where the footing might be best or which way the wind is blowing or where the scoreboard is. And when North Little Rock won the toss and chose to play defense as expected, the Hornets didn’t hesitate to choose the north end zone but it wasn’t for any of those reasons.
“We knew if we got the choice we’d be going to that end zone,” acknowledged Bryant defensive coordinator Steve Griffith, “That’s the enchanted end zone, where we always seem to come up with a big win. It just seems like every time there’s a big play at the end of a game for us, it’s happened in that north end zone.”
It happened again. The Hornets scored on their first play, a 10-yard run by Chris Rycraw, taking a direct snap in a variation of the popular Wildcat formation. North Little Rock, in turn, got the end zone in three plays, consecutive runs by tailback Michael Tillman behind the Charging Wildcats’ massive offensive line and bowling ball fullback Marcus Fields (5-7, 240).
On the extra-point attempt, however, the snap was behind holder James Kelley, who did a great job of reaching back and getting the ball on the tee. But the timing was messed up and kicker Kyle Cromer pulled the ball wide of the uprights to the left and the Hornets celebrated another north-end-zone victory.
“It’s just been a good spot for us and we wanted to come back down there and play,” Griffith noted.
“We were due for something good to happen,” added head coach Paul Calley. “That’s our lucky end zone.”
The enchantment, if you will, dates back to the season that turned around the Bryant program, 1999. The most memorable of many noted victories in that 10-0 regular-season campaign came in a shootout with Pine Bluff, a team Bryant had never defeated. It was a watershed moment that season. Both teams were 4-0 but Pine Bluff, led by quarterback Mark Bradley who went on to fame with Oklahoma and is currently playing wide receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs, was ranked sixth in the state and the Hornets, 14 years removed from the program’s last winning season, were not.
Bryant would rack up 541 yards of offense and force seven turnovers. They piled up a 35-0 lead at the half but Pine Bluff came storming back in the third quarter and got within 41-31 with 10 minutes still to play in the game. The Zebras had the momentum and the football after recovering an onside kick near midfield. On a third-down play, Bradley overthrew his intended receiver deep down the right side and Matt White intercepted, returning 67 yards to that north end zone to stem the tide.
White, who rushed for 204 yards on the night, would add a 42-yard run for a touchdown (to the north end zone) late in the game to cap off the wild 55-31 Bryant win.
White was also a key figure in a triple overtime win by the Hornets over Lake Hamilton in 2001.
All three overtimes were played on the north end and White scored in the first extra period and in the third, putting the Hornets ahead 37-31. In the second OT, the Hornets had to score on a fourth-down play from the 9 to keep the game going and quarterback Lance Parker rolled out to find Jonathan Jameson for the score that sent it to the third extra period.
This time, Bryant scored first on White’s 1-yard plunge set up by a 14-yard pass from Parker to Zach Cardinal. But the extra point was no good leaving the door open for the Wolves to win it with a touchdown and extra point. Lake Hamilton used a halfback pass only to have Brandon St. Pierre intercept in the back of that north end zone to end it.
The next year, the No. 1-ranked Conway Wampus Cats with their thunder and lightning run game featuring speedy Kevin Wardlow and powerful Peyton Hillis who both went over 1,000 yards rushing that season. Hillis, of course, went on to star for the Arkansas Razorbacks and is a rookie this year playing for the Denver Broncos.
In another overtime game played at the north end of Bryant Stadium, Conway got the first stab at scoring and reached the 2 where, on third down, the 6-1, 235-pound Hillis got to the lip of the goal line where he met Bryant’s 5-11, 170-pound safety Bryan Griffith who somehow denied him the end zone.
The Wampus Cats lined up to go for it on fourth down but a procedure penalty backed them up to the 6 and they decided to attempt a field goal that was somehow missed. Bryant brought on its own kicker Todd Bryan who drilled his kick to win it 36-33.
Perhaps the most noteworthy of the north end zone charms came on a damp October night in 2004. The defending state champion Little Rock Central Tigers, on their way to a second title in a row, came to Bryant riding a 19-game winning streak. Their vaunted defense had allowed just 3 points in their first five games but the Hornets found a way to build a 15-7 lead going into the fourth quarter on a pair of touchdown pass from Anthony Mask to Richie Wood and a field goal by Bryan.
But Central rallied in the fourth quarter, trimming the lead to 15-13 with just under 10 minutes left. The Hornets held on until late in the game. Central, down to probably its last possession after a goal line stand earlier in the quarter by the Bryant defense, drove for a go-ahead touchdown with Mickey Dean taking it into the south end zone from 11 yards out with 1:46 to go.
It looked like the Tigers would escape with their winning streak and national ranking intact but Mask, who was 30 of 54 passing in the game, hit Wood with a couple of short throws and the Hornets converted a fourth down as they marched to the Central 15. A clutch catch by Brandon Butler out of the backfield converted a third down to get them there with less than 30 second to play.
But three incompletions followed and the Hornets were down to their last snap. Mask rolled slightly to his right and rifled a pass to Dustin Holland, who had pulled up between a pair of Central defenders a yard beyond the goal line. Holland grasped the throw and Bryant had regained the lead with :08.3 showing on the clock.
Bryant won it 22-19. It was the only loss over more than two seasons for Central.
Even last year, the north end zone proved to be the scene of another dramatic win. In what turned out to be a game for the championship of the 7A-Central Conference, Bryant and Russellville had battled to a 7-7 deadlock. Late in the game, Bryant made a defensive stand and the offense got one last chance to win it in regulation. Key runs by Aspen Trevino and a pass from Logan Parker to Jake Jackson fueled the drive. But they needed a leaping, spinning catch by Taylor Masters to get to the 17 with 39 seconds left. Parker centered the ball on the field with a 2-yard keeper and the Hornets let the time roll down to :03.7 before calling their final timeout.
Despite a pair of “icing” timeouts by Russellville, Austin Bradley came on to drill a 33-yard field goal out of the hold of Ethan Powell to win it.
There have been others, perhaps, but one more can definitely be added to the list on an “enchanting” Halloween night in 2008.