To onside or not to onside — that was the question.
Bryant Hornets head coach Paul Calley thought about using the onside kick a couple of times but decided, wisely as it turned out, not to do so.
The Greenwood Bulldogs, however, chose to try the onside kick twice Friday night against Hornets. Certainly, it was understandable. Their kicks were moved up 15 yards because of Bryant penalties on two Bulldogs’ extra point kicks. So using the onside from Bryant’s 45 seemed low risk.
Neither worked, though. On the first one, after the Bulldogs had taken a 14-7 lead midway through the third quarter, the kick didn’t go far enough for Greenwood to be able to gain possession. (Onside kicks have to go 10 yards before the kicking team can claim them.)
That wasn’t so bad. Bryant went three-and-out and Greenwood had the ball back anyway moments later.
The second one, however, proved to be disastrous. The Bulldogs had just pulled within 3 points of the Hornets, 24-21. There was just 2:43 left in the game. Fully expecting the onside, Bryant deployed with its good-hands team — receivers, running backs, defensive backs — with one glaring exception, defensive tackle Cameron Murray, all 6-2, 280-pounds of him.
“We knew they’d kick it at him,” acknowledged Bryant head coach Paul Calley. “If they see a big guy, a lineman out there, they’re going to kick it at him.”
Now Murray was, at one time, good enough at basketball to play as a freshman on Mike Abrahamson’s Hornets basketball team. He could shoot, he could rebound and he could defend, taking up a lot of space inside. Though not known particularly for his ball-handling back then, he’s gained the endorsement of Calley and wound up convincing the Bulldogs.
Sure enough, the rolling onside kick came right to him. He came up to meet it and knocked it down with one hand like he was taking a control dribble. The ball came right back up into his hands as the charging Bulldogs sprinted past him. Murray picked it clean off the bounce and headed the other way, out-sprinting everyone to the North end zone to give the Hornets a two-score margin with 2:34 left to play.
“We feel like he’s got a pair of the best hands on the team,” Calley asserted. “He is a point guard in a defensive lineman’s body — great hands. I’m not going to say, he did exactly what we wanted him to do. I’d rather had him let the ball go (the 10 yards). But the result was ‘fantabulous.’ It hit his hands. He batted it in front of him, caught it in the air and took it to the house. That turned everything around.”
For good measure, the Hornets capped off the win when linebacker Ben Bruick picked off a pass and returned it 88 yards for a touchdown in the final minute as they claimed a 38-21 win before a refreshingly lively gathering.
The win improved Bryant to 6-0-1 on the season, 4-0 in the 7A/6A-Central Conference going into a crucial road game at Van Buren next Friday. Greenwood is 4-3 and 2-2 with its own crucial trip to Siloam Springs up next.
Bruick’s was the second pick-6 for the Hornets. Earlier in the second half, Connor Chapdelaine came up with an interception and returned it 92 yards for a touchdown.
The interceptions were two of the three turnovers the Hornets forced, all in startling fashion. Startling because they all came when Greenwood was on the verge of scoring. Bruick’s came after the Bulldogs had driven to the Bryant 15. Chapdelaine’s came after the Bulldogs had marched to the Hornets 12 with the game deadlocked 14-14.
The other came on Greenwood’s opening possession after Bryant had taken a 7-0 lead on a 13-play, 80-yard drive to begin the game. The Bulldogs countered with a rapid march to the Bryant 11 where safety Brendan Young planted Greenwood running back Jordan Green at the 9. The ball came loose and Murray pounced on it.
And, oh, yes, about those onside kicks — they were the only kickoffs by either team that weren’t touchbacks. Bryant’s Alex Denker boomed it into the end zone all six times he kicked off. But it might not have been that way if Calley had followed his first inclination. Asked what he thought the keys to the win were, he related, “Defensive effort. And patience.
“You know, a couple of times I wanted to onside kick it, surprise onside kick it, to try to gain a possession,” he explained. “But then I thought, no, let the defense play, let ‘em play. As it turns out, we forced a fumble and we had two picks — both times when I had thought about doing it. And I think that might have something to do with it, (Greenwood) having to drive the length of the field. Denker was huge, putting the ball out of the end zone, making them go 80. It’s hard to do.”
The Bulldogs still pulled it off twice. A third touchdown came after a punt.
“My hat’s off to them, a tremendous, tremendous football program and tremendous team,” Calley said of the Bulldogs, a program that has won six State championships (Class 6A and Class 5A) since 2005 and came into this season having lost just one game since the middle of the 2010 campaign, a stretch of 48 wins in a row with three State titles. It’s a tribute to Greenwood that Friday’s win meant so much to Bryant.
“They played hard,” Calley acknowedged. “Our defense played harder. I’ve never ever seen that kind of effort. Those guys, they bond. They play for each other. And it was one of the most physical games I can remember.
“When you beat a tradition-rich powerhouse like Greenwood, you’re happy for your kids because not many people ever can say they’ve beaten Greenwood, especially by 17 points,” he added.
“They’re just a quality offensive football team,” Bryant defensive coordinator Steve Griffith stated. “Holding them to 7 points in the first half was just tremendous. We knew they keep coming at you and keep coming at you and keep coming at you. Their kids just believe. And our kids just kept on fighting.”
Indeed, the game was tied 7-7 at the half. Bryant’s scoring drive to open the game was capped off by quarterback Brandan Warner’s 1-yard plunge. Warner completed all three of his passes along the way including a 27-yard strike to Austin Kelly and a shovel pass — a new twist to the Bryant offense — that picked up 6 yards to Kylon Boyle. It was a play that proved to be a key ingredient to the Hornets’ attack as Warner went 11 of 15 passing for 153 yards.
“It was off a counter look,” Calley explained, referring to a standard Hornets’ alignment and their bread-and-butter running play. “We felt like we could get the linebackers going one way. You kind of hide the back and they can’t see the ball. We’ve got flow going one way and flip it back the other.
“We were blocking down,” he mentioned. “We thought we knew how their front was going to align. They played really good on defense. Usually, we pop out of there and get some big plays but they got 11 people around the ball. It’s hard to pop a big play against them.”
Greenwood quarterback Reid Wheeler wound up completing 26 of 39 passes for 284 yards. He was 5 for 5 on the Bulldogs’ opening drive before Green coughed up the ball on Young’s big hit inside the 10. Nonetheless, he would go on to rush for 159 yards on 30 carries.
The Hornets were forced to punt and the Bulldogs picked up where they left off. This time cashing in, covering 59 yards to paydirt. But it took them 16 plays. Cameron Palmer scored from the 1. Greenwood converted two fourth-down situations during the march and, escaped a third-and-20 with a 22-yard pass from Wheeler to Kevin Jones, who caught 10 passes for 125 yards in the contest.
Bryant used most of the rest of the half with a drive from its own 20 to the Greenwood 28. But, on a third down there, DeAmonte Terry was dropped for a loss. Denker, who has kicked four field goals of over 40 yards this season, attempted a 48-yarder. He had plenty of distance but the kick sailed wide right for his first miss of the year.
The second half started with both teams going three-and-out. But on its second possession, Greenwood, aided by a personal foul penalty, drove 72 yards in six plays to take the lead. Green’s 21-yard run was the big play of the drive. The TD came on a 12-yard strike from Wheeler to Jones.
Jones added the extra point despite Bryant nearly blocking his kick. The Hornets were cited for roughing the kicker and the first onside kick followed.
After an exchange of punts, the Hornets’ offense responded with an eight-play, 63-yard drive to tie the game. Warner’s 43-yard pass to Aaron Orender converted a third down and set up Boyle’s 2-yard hurdle into the end zone on third and goal.
Greenwood appeared to be on the way to regaining the advantage with Wheeler completing three passes and Green running. On second-and-8 at the 12, Drew Tipton made one of several key plays in the game, stopping Green for a loss. On third-and-9, Wheeler dropped back to pass, aiming at a receiver in the right seam only to have Chapdelaine step in front of the receiver in full sprint with nothing but green in front of him.
So, instead of trailing 21-14, Bryant led by that score with 9:35 left to play.
The defense returned to the field after the kickoff and surrendered a 35-yard gallop by Green. But three plays later, the Bulldogs faced a fourth-and-3 at the Bryant 35. Wheeler and Green missed connections on a handoff and though Wheeler scooped the ball up and was looking downfield, Bryant’s end Ryan Hall dropped him for a loss and the Hornets took over on downs.
Young and Tipton wound up leading the Hornets with 14 tackles each. End Hunter Fugitt was in on 13, two for losses, and Hall made 10 stops.
A 27-yard bolt by Terry on one of those shovel passes helped the Hornets drive to the Greenwood 4. Savonte Turner contributed a 7-yard run and Warner kept for 9 to convert a third down. But a fumble on third and goal forced the Hornets to settle for a field goal. Denker drilled it, an important 3 points, giving Bryant a two-score lead with 4:26 to play.
Although it was that late, the scoring was hardly over despite the fact that the Hornets’ offense had run its last play of the game at that point.
Tipton made a pair of big plays on Greenwood’s ensuing series. He broke up a pass then sacked Wheeler on a blitz.
“We’ve got a package we call our Air Force package,” Griffith said. “It’s just a 3-4, something we’ve played for years, except we bring in an extra d-back to play instead of a linebacker. Where normally we have two backers in the middle, we have a backer and the extra DB behind. It just puts (Tipton) in position to make a lot of plays. He’s involved inside when they throw inside, plus we can use him to stunt. We did it with Dillon Winfrey a few years ago and got a lot of good mileage out of it. We went back to that package this week and it was good to us.”
The Hornets had the Bulldogs in a fourth-and-18 situation at their own 27. They got off the hook when Wheeler found Jones for 42 yards. Two plays later, Wheeler hit Garrett Collins for a 38-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 24-21.
The Hornets had an equipment violation on the extra point, which moved Greenwood’s kickoff up to the Bryant 45 again. The game-turning onside kick and Murray’s rumble for a touchdown followed.
With 2:33 left, Greenwood once again had 80 yards to go after Denker’s kickoff. The Bulldogs drove it as Wheeler hit 7 of 10 passes. When they reached the 15, Wheeler again tried to throw to the right seam. But there was Bruick and 88 yards later, Bryant had a 38-21 win.
For long-time Hornets fans, it’s no surprise that both of Bryant’s interception returns and Murray’s kickoff return all went into the “magical” North end zone.
“This was a lot of fun,” declared Griffith. “I’d say it’s what keeps guys like me sticking around for a little while, to get a chance to see those kids do what they did out there tonight. It’s a great win. We’re going to enjoy it then Monday we’re going back to work.”
HORNETS 38, BULLDOGS 21
Score by quarter
Greenwood 0 7 7 7 — 21
BRYANT 7 0 7 24 — 38
BRYANT — Warner 1 run (Denker kick), 5:56
GREENWOOD — Palmer 1 run (Jones kick), 6:27
GREENWOOD — Jones 12 pass from Wheeler (Jones kick), 7:28
BRYANT — Boyle 2 run (Denker kick), 0:57.6
BRYANT — Chapdelaine 92 interception return (Denker kick), 9:35
BRYANT — Denker 28 field goal, 4:26
GREENWOOD — Collins 38 pass from Wheeler (Jones kick), 2:43
BRYANT — Murray 63 kickoff return (Denker kick), 2:34
BRYANT — Bruick 88 interception return (Denker kick), 0:33.7
First downs 26 15
Rushes-yds 45-188 38-110
Passing 26-39-2 11-15-0
Passing yds 284 155
Punts-avg. 2-38.5 3-35.3
Fumbles-lost 2-1 1-0
Penalties-yds 5-46 6-80
Rushing: BRYANT, Boyle 12-51, Terry 10-33, Turner 7-20, Warner 9-6; GREENWOOD, Green 30-159, Palmer 8-24, Collins 3-12, Wheeler 4-(-7).
Passing (C-A-I-Y): BRYANT, Warner 10-15-0-155; GREENWOOD, Wheeler 26-39-2-284.
Receiving: BRYANT, Boyle 6-41, Kelly 2-39, Orender 1-43, Terry 1-27, Turner 1-5; GREENWOOD, K.Jones 10-125, Padilla 7-64, Green 4-15, Collins 2-43, B.Jones 1-14, Hughes 1-12, Morgan 1-11.