By Rob Patrick
At one point during Friday’s game against the North Little Rock Charging Wildcats, Bryant head coach Paul Calley looked up and noticed that his kickoff coverage including eight guys — eight of 11 — that have hardly ever played on kickoff coverage.
But they had to be in there because the Hornets were that banged up. The usual group needed the down time.
On defense, too, the dike kept springing leaks that the Bryant coaches had to keep plugging, often with guys that hadn’t had much varsity experience — none in the heat of a game.
On offense, at one point, Bryant was down to one healthy running back, sophomore Jalen Bell, who himself had just returned from injury the week before.
Yet, by making key plays at key times on defense (including four interceptions), on offense (including a 59-yard touchdown pass) and on special teams (including a long kickoff return and some effective punting by Tanner Tolbert), the Hornets found a way to extract a 28-21 win over a team as gifted physically as any in the state.
In fact, the defense aided by field-position punting, shut out the Wildcats in the second half.
“When you look at the two teams, if you walked out on the field and you didn’t know the records, there’s no way you’d pick our bunch to win,” stated Calley. “It was just an amazing win and I’m proud we have the opportunity now to play for a share of the conference championship.”
Yes, the win improved the Hornets to 5-1 in league play, tied for the lead with Conway and Cabot. With a win on Thursday, Nov. 4, over Little Rock Central (which clinched a playoff spot with a win over Catholic on Friday), they will share the league crown with one or both of those teams. The victory also clinched, at worst, a home playoff opener with an outside chance at a first-round bye.
North Little Rock dropped to 4-5 overall and 3-3 in league play. The Wildcats will be the No. 5 seed from the 7A-Central for the post-season, a spot that Bryant would’ve been relegated to had it not forged the victory.
Oh, and this just in:The North Little Rock offensive linemen have indeed, at long last, let go of Josh Hampton’s jersey.
Despite the fact that Hampton was on the field for nearly every play of the game, at the end, it was he along with James Kidd that were pressuring North Little Rock quarterback Kaylon Cooper. Despite using just a three-man front to rush with against a humongous offensive line which had to resort to (unpenalized) holding, the Hornets were putting the heat on Cooper, forcing him to miss 8 of his last 11 passes and, of the three completions, allowing only one to gain yardage.
“He was relentless,” acknowledged Hornets defensive coordinator Steve Griffith of Hampton who led the team with 14 tackles. “He was tired. He played a ton of snaps on offense. It was just want-to. Why more college coaches aren’t lined up to see this kid — he is playing hard. He plays 75 or 80 percent of all the snaps in the ballgame. He’s on the punt coverage team. He’s on the extra point and field goal teams. He’s out there a lot. And he just continues to play super hard; very, very physical, runs well. He really led by example on the field tonight.”
Middle linebacker Collin Chapdelaine was in on 13 stops, strong safety Holden Chavis 12 with Kidd, Mayall and Dillon Winfrey in on nine each.
"We had a good defensive game plan,” Calley noted. “We stuck with it. We finally executed it in the second half and it worked.”
“We went to our Tampa package,” Griffith related. “It’s basically a 3-3 look with a lot of cover-two and we felt like that would give us a lot better run support on the edge where they were really trying to attack in the first half. It’s also good against the pass if you can get some pressure out of your front three. We were getting a three-man pass rush, the guys were getting some pressure which enabled us to get good drops. The linebackers were able to drop back in there and make a couple of picks.
“We played a lot of guys tonight,” he added. “We had a lot of guys banged up and we called on some of our guys that don’t play as much, guys that play on Monday nights (in junior varsity games). They get a few reps in practice but not a tremendous number.
“I was really proud of some of those guys that stepped in there and gave us some quality play in the second half when we had to have it. They, along with some of the veterans up front, Josh especially, bringing up the pass rush and James and Matt Jones and Tim Kelly, a sophomore, came in and gave us some good rush up front. It was just a really good effort.”
Using a speed sweep for much of it, the Wildcats rushed for 114 yards in the first half but only wound up with 195 on 37 rushes in the game.
“We made some adjustments and we talked about that we really had to come back and play hard in the second half and we were able to get that done,” Griffith said. “I just can’t say enough about the effort, especially in that second half. We challenged them at halftime to step up and show some character and they did.”
The game was tied 21-21 at the half. North Little Rock’s opening possession of the second half ended after one first down when Chapdelaine picked off a Cooper pass at the Wildcats’ 34 and returned it to the 23.
On first down, it was Hampton, playing tight end, that latched onto a pass from Hayden Lessenberry in traffic and took the punishment, holding on at the 9. After two runs by Jacob Powell got to the 4, Lessenberry hit Dillon Winfrey on a short post for a touchdown with 8:01 left in the third quarter.
That ended up putting what turned out to be the final score on the board.
North Little Rock had two meaningful chances to answer. On the ensuing possession, they drove from their own 30 to the Bryant 25 where, on second-and-7, Chapdelaine and Cameron Price stopped Cooper for a gain of 1. On third down, the Hornets interior defense stuffed things up so Cooper could only get 2 more to the 22.
On fourth-and-4, the Wildcats went for it. Cooper found Hunter Airheart who had caught a touchdown pass earlier but just as the ball got to him, Chavis lowered the boom and the ball fell incomplete.
The Hornets took over and picked up a first down on a pair of runs by Powell. A second-down run, however, was negated by a holding penalty that pushed them back to the 22.
With senior receiver Caleb Garrett showing admirable concentration, he hauled in a pass from Lessenberry that Wildcats’ safety Deidrick Hobbs went high in an attempt to knock down. He tipped it but Garrett caught it anyway for 19 yards, setting up a third-and-2.
But Powell was stopped and Tolbert came on to punt. On his previous attempt, he’d only gotten a 19-yard punt away, kicking it out of bounds. But this time, he boomed one that took a Bryant hop toward the goal line. Just before it got there, Winfrey tracked it down at the 1.
Because he caught the ball at the 1 and ran on into the end zone, the North Little Rock crowd and head coach Brad Bolding, argued that, like in college and the NFL, the ball should’ve been ruled a touchback. But the rule is different in high school and the play stood.
So, with 1:01 left in the third quarter, the Wildcats had 99 yards to go for a tying score. And they reached the Bryant 29. A procedure penalty pushed them back and, after an incomplete deep throw, Mayall sniffed out a screen pass to fullback Dalton Dunlap and stopped him for a loss of 3.
Cooper scrambled to the 30 where, on fourth down, running back Darreal Mems took a pitch and rolled right to throw. With Hampton chasing him (and being blocked in the back), Mems tossed a pass deep down the right side only to have Bryant’s Jesse Johnson intercept with 7:10 left in the game.
Because of a re-aggravation of a neck strain, Tolbert was limited to punting at that point and Bryant was using Johnson and Travis Royal in the secondary.
“We were playing the two safeties we play on JV night,” declared Calley, “and they did a good job after they, I think, were kind of stunned to be in the game in the first half.”
The Hornets ran three plays from their own 13 and punted.
Much of a good return by Hobbs was negated by an illegal block and, with 4:59 left to play, North Little Rock took over at its 42, trying to drive for a tying score.
On first down, however, Hampton recognized a screen pass to Dominique Golden and broke off his rush. He got to Golden just after he caught the pass and tackled him for a 6-yard loss. A play later, Cooper appeared to have found Dunlap over the middle but a big hit by Price knocked the ball loose and the Wildcats lined up to punt.
They ran a fake, however. Bryant, though, had deployed in more of a defense than a return set and stopped upback Alex Gosser sort of the first down. Price again led the effort on the tackle.
Bryant had the ball and the lead with 3:58 left. Stephen Clark, back in after limping off earlier in the game, slashed behind the Bryant offensive line for 7 yards. He then broke a 21-yarder, sprung by guard Landon Pickett who was pulling on the play.
It was a heck of a time for Bryant’s longest rushing play of the night.
With North Little Rock out of timeouts, the Hornets ran three more plays — two of which lost yardage — to run the clock. On fourth down, Jace Denker attempted a 45-yard field goal and was just short.
“We had the lead,” Calley noted. “We didn’t want to throw. We were going to try to eat some clock, keep it on the ground. Our zone scheme wasn’t very good because they were so fast. They could get to the football pretty quick. So we felt like we were better off running right at them, coming downhill and that’s what we tried to do. We didn’t want to get in the lost-yardage situation. We made some big first downs.”
The Hornets had worked the clock down to :33 at that point. The Charging Wildcats picked up a first down with a 15-yard pass to Golden but, after “clocking” the ball to stop the clock, Cooper was left trying to avoid Hampton who was being held but still getting pressure with a bull rush. Three incomplete passes later and the Hornets had their victory.
“I thought our kids played just as hard as they could play,” emphasized Calley.
The Hornets jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the game. Tolbert opened the contest with a 65-yard kickoff return to the North Little Rock 21. Still, they would have to convert a fourth-and-2 on the possession. By then Clark had been shaken up and Powell had come on. He slashed off right end for 5 yards to the 8.On the next play, Lessenberry laced his way through the defense on a keeper for the touchdown.
North Little Rock’s first possession lasted four snaps. The Wildcats reached the Bryant 45 but Tolbert intercepted a Cooper pass and returned it to the 36.
Jalen Bell picked up 5 yards on first down but was stuffed for no gain on second. On third down, Lessenberry tossed a pass down the right sideline to Sawyer Nichols. And when the defender made an unsuccessful attempt at an interception, Nichols pulled in the ball and raced down the sideline for a 59-yard touchdown.
“Us getting the lead this year is the key,” Calley stated. “We play a lot better in front than we do from behind. The big thing for us offensively is that we got the ball in the end zone when we got in the red zone.”
North Little Rock answered with an 80-yard drive for a score in eight plays. Using the speed sweep effectively, they reached the 31. Cooper passed to Dunlap for 9 yards then kept himself for 10. A penalty threatened the throw off the drive but from the 17, Cooper and Airheart combined for the touchdown.
The Hornets went three-and-out again and punted North Little Rock back to its 28. But, again, behind the running of Golden and Cooper’s passing and running, they drove for a tying score, a 2-yard keeper by Cooper.
The Hornets got enough offense going on its next possession to drive from their 15 to the 47. From there, Tolbert punted the Wildcats back to the 11 where Winfrey made a marvelous shoestring tackle on Hobbs to prevent a return.
That set up a Bryant score. On a second-and-12, Cooper tried to throw only to have Mayall step in to make the interception. He wound his way through the Wildcats and scored as the Hornets went up 21-14.
On the ensuing kickoff, however, Rodney Bryson returned for a touchdown that appeared to be sprung by a pair of clips. But the only penalty was against the Hornets for a chop block and the touchdown stood.
With the game tied at 21, the Hornets made an effort to regain the lead, driving from their own 20 to the Cats’ 48 with Clark, Dylan Pritchett, Lessenberry and Powell all picking up yardage.
The Hornets then tried a trick play. Hampton lined up at tight end then started toward the sideline as Marcus Harris came in to replace him. But before he got to the sideline, he stopped. No defender had shadowed him and Lessenberry tossed a quick pass that way. With lots of room, Hampton looked to run before he secured the pass and the ball dropped.
At first, the Hornets were penalized for procedure but, after a talk with Calley, they waved off the flag.
That set up a third-down play but Lessenberry was sacked by Julian Bester and, with :25.4 left in the half, Tolbert angled a kick out of bounds. North Little Rock ran one play and it was halftime.
“Offensively, we did what we had to do to win the game,” Calley commented. “Maybe for the first time ever we took advantage of all our opportunities. We got a defensive scored too. Hunter’s score was huge. Tanner punting the ball a couple of times and putting them down there deep made them drive a long way too.”
And, in the second half, that proved more than they could manage.
BRYANT 28, NORTH LITTLE ROCK 21
Score by quarters
No Little Rock 7 14 0 0 — 21
BRYANT 14 7 7 0 — 28
BRYANT — Lessenberry 8 run (Denker kick), 9:53
BRYANT — Nichols 59 pass from Lessenberry (Denker kick), 6:52
NORTH LITTLE ROCK — Airheart 17 pass from Cooper (Atilano kick), 3:32
NORTH LITTLE ROCK — Cooper 2 run (Atilano kick), 8:30
BRYANT — Mayall 21 interception return (Denker kick), 4:34
NORTH LITTLE ROCK — Bryson 89 kickoff return (Atilano kick), 4:19
BRYANT — Winfrey 4 pass from Lessenberry (Denker kick), 8:01
First downs 19 10
Rushes-yds 37-195 35-109
Passing 13-27-4 4-7-0
Passing yds 135 96
Punts-avg. 0-00.0 5-36.4
Fumbles-lost 0-0 0-0
Penalties-yds 7-40 4-35
Rushing: BRYANT, Powell 13-54, Clark 10-40, J.Bell 4-8, Pritchett 2-5, Lessenberry 5-1, Harris 1-1; NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Cooper 13-68, Golden 10-63, Bryson 4-32, Tenpenny 9-25, Gosser 1-7.
Passing (C-A-I-Y): BRYANT, Lessenberry 4-7-0-96; NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Cooper 12-25-3-113, Mems 1-2-1-22.
Receiving: BRYANT, Nichols 1-59, Garrett 1-10, Hampton 1-14, Winfrey 1-4; NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Dunlap 4-50, Mems 3-25, Golden 2-9, Cooper 1-22, Airheart 1-17, Tenpenny 1-7, Willis 1-5.