Remembering: Salt Bowl 9 — Now that’s progress

As part of the countdown to the 10th Salt Bowl, is featuring the game stories published in the Bryant Times about the first nine. Salt Bowl IX was drenched by the remnants of Hurricane Gustav. It was played on Aug. 26, 2008, at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. There were two stories. — Rob



LITTLE ROCK — The fans that were present at the Bryant Hornets’ pre-season scrimmage against the Pine Bluff Zebras on Tuesday, Aug. 26, could see it for themselves. Let’s just say it was not an encouraging performance for those wondering if Bryant’s inexperienced squad would be able to make this a re-loading season rather than a rebuilding campaign.

But head coach Paul Calley stayed upbeat in his post-scrimmage interview, realizing that a work-in-progress was underway, team confidence fragile and any criticism needed to stay in-house.

But, on the heels of his team’s convincing 36-12 win over the rival Benton Panthers in the 2008 Salt Bowl at soggy, wind-blown War Memorial Stadium, the coach acknowledged, “We were embarrassed by the way we played against Pine Bluff. We didn’t play very physical. We didn’t play sound. You know, we were kind of tentative. A lot of that comes from us being so young.[more]

“We’ve gotten better,” Calley asserted, “but I think they relish playing in that game (the Salt Bowl). They love playing against Benton and nobody on that team had ever lost to Benton and they didn’t want to start (Tuesday) night.”

And for those that might think that the difference was between playing Benton as opposed to playing Pine Bluff, the coach added, “I think Benton’s a better football team than what they showed. They just had trouble running their offense because of the weather.”

So, what was the difference for the Hornets? Consider two things: Some shuffling of personnel on defense and an early-game decision by Calley and offensive coordinator Brooks Coatney.

Offensively, the Hornets aren’t usually much different than the Panthers. Both utilize the spread and try to be balanced, run and pass. But with the considerable remnants of Hurricane Gustav descending on central Arkansas with winds gusting to 40 miles per hour with rain of constantly varying intensity, the Hornets simplified, stacking senior middle linebacker Austin Humbard at fullback in front of tailback Chris Rycraw in the I-formation with two tight ends, regular Temple Holdcraft on one side and defensive tackle Josh Hampton on the other and, much of the time, the outstanding duo of tackle Jordan Jacobs and guard Scott Pilcher leading the way over the left side.

“We’ve been working on our goal-line offense since day one,” Calley noted. “That’s basically what it was. We had four plays out of it and just a couple of pass plays and that’s what we decided to go with.

“We were committed to the spread offense early,” he allowed. “I thought we could do it at least until the footballs got too wet to throw, but they were too wet to throw when we started. We decided that we were going to try the run game and see if we could get it going and we did. So we stuck with it. We tried to throw when we had to, when we thought we might have them out-flanked, and we let (junior quarterback) Jimi (Easterling) run it a little bit but it was too hard to try to throw the ball.”

And Rycraw responded with 130 yards on 19 carries including four touchdowns.

“He’s got great vision and he’s got another gear,” Calley said of his junior back who contributed 40 yards on 11 carries as a sophomore reserve. “He can accelerate, stop and start on a dime and he just gave us an edge.”

Rycraw’s work also freed up returning starter Aspen Trevino to not only help at fullback to give Humbard a rest but also to sub in for Rycraw to the tune of 28 yards on eight carries as well as getting in some time at linebacker himself.

And that was part of the shuffling that factored into the improvement. In the process of moving different players around during the week leading up to the game, the Hornets defensive coaches made some discoveries. Not only could Trevino help at linebacker but with the emergence of Shad Schwaesdall (5-11, 190) at defensive end and the return to health of Nathan Lee (5-11, 160) on the other side, they could move Hampton inside to tackle, giving them more bulk there from the 6-3, 235-pound sophomore.

Plus, with return of injured Dylan Chism, the emergence of sophomore Hunter Mayall and Trevino at linebacker, defensive coordinator Steve Griffith and d-line coach Brad Stroud gave senior linebacker Shawn Burchfield another look at defensive tackle. At 5-10, 175, Burchfield harkened back to the small, quick tackles the team has relied on in recent years and his quick first-step proved to be a revelation.

And, as it turned out, Burchfield, Hampton and Humbard led a defensive effort that only allowed Benton a net of 2 yards of offense in the second half, just 95 for the game. In the third quarter when Bryant’s 14-6 halftime lead ballooned to 36-6, Benton had a net total offense of minus-30 yards (which included a bad snap on a punt that lost 15 yards and resulted in a safety).

“We played okay in the first half but, really, in the third quarter we got after them,” Calley noted. “It was like they couldn’t block us. We started twisting a little bit more up front and we had guys popping through. We just gave great effort, basically.”

And such effort, applied to the work that still must be done, will go a long way toward getting the team ready to compete in the 7A-Central Conference.

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