LITTLE ROCK — When does a tie feel like a loss? When you have beaten your rival eight times in a row and 13 of the last 16 meetings.
When does a tie feel like a win? When you’ve lost to your rival eight times in a row and 13 of the last 16.
For just the second time since the rivalry started in 1974, the Bryant Hornets and the Benton Panthers played to a tie. The 15th Salt Bowl, with a near-record crowd of 25,850 on hand, finished 14-14. The only other tie was a wild 34-34 deadlock in 2003.
It snapped Benton’s eight-year losing streak to the Hornets because, hey, it wasn’t a loss. And snapped Bryant’s eight-year winning streak against the Panthers because, doggone it, it wasn’t a win.
The Salt Bowl trophy will be shared this year. It’ll be on display at Benton High School for six months and at Bryant High School for six months. And, in 364 days, they’ll go after it again.
Many fans were surprised at the end when there was no overtime but for non-conference games, that is the case in Arkansas high school football. The last two years, the rivals were in the same conference but, this year, the Hornets have moved back to the 7A/6A-Central while the Panthers stayed in the 6A-South.
Because Bryant’s average margin of victory over the last eight years has been 22 points, the final was a stunner for a lot of Bryant fans. But every year’s a new one and the Panthers have been improving every year. They think they have something special this year. And they apparently are correct.
Those fans certainly got an indication that this might be a different deal early.
You know, when a football team goes for it on fourth down, it’s like macho time. It’s like, “Let’s see if you’re man enough to stop us and get the ball back or if we’re man enough to enforce our will and keep our drive alive.”
On the opening drive of the game, the Panthers faced a fourth-and-1 at the Bryant 49-yard line. They went for it and not only made it but play-maker Drew Harris, a move-in from Lincoln, Ark., with his dad, the new Benton defensive coordinator, broke an option pitch for 35 yards.
Cason Maertens threw a touchdown pass to Casey Green on the next play.
In turn, the Hornets got a great runback on the kickoff by Kylon Boyle. Benton’s Brandon Black made a touchdown-saving tackle at the Benton 21.
Bryant ran three plays and faced a fourth-and-3 at the 14. They went for it and couldn’t convert as Benton made a stand.
Now, that looked like it wouldn’t be that big a deal as the half unfurled. The Hornets scored on their next two possessions to take the lead and it looked like it might be a game like other Salt Bowls before where Benton made a fast start only to be overtaken and left behind by Bryant.
Trailing 14-7, Benton drove from its own 28 to the Bryant 6. The Hornets made a bid at a stand, forcing the Panthers into a fourth-and-3 with 2:33 left in the half.
Eight losses in row? Nothing to lose, right?
Again, the Panthers not only converted the fourth down, they scored as Harris, running at quarterback, split a pair of defenders at the corner and lunged into the end zone.
The game was tied with 2:27 left in the half and, as it turned out, the final was on the scoreboard.
The Panthers were tough on third down too. For the game, they converted 8 of 15 third downs. And, on three of the occasions when they didn’t convert, they went for it on fourth down and got the yardage needed every time.
“We got a big play early with our kickoff return and couldn’t convert that into points,” observed Hornets head coach Paul Calley. “That’s something we’ve traditionally been pretty good at.
“I thought we played really hard,” he said. “I thought we competed. We’re just not very smart at times. We made mistakes that hurt us. We never really got the big play offensively, never really got in sync offensively.
“I’m not going to make excuses. I thought Benton played extremely well,” the coach continued. “It’s hard for us to simulate what they were doing in practice because you don’t want to get people hurt in practice. They were very aggressive.
“It’s my fault. Offensively, we didn’t get the linemen the look that they needed to be successful. We expected what they did. We just didn’t give them enough credit. They were more physical than we thought they’d be.
“Defensively, there were several times we had them third and long and we let them out,” he acknowledged. “Last year, we started slow and we got better. And a lot of it to me, defensively, it’s going to start with our safeties. Last year, we had returning starters at safety that were pretty solid. Now we’ve got new guys back there that are going to bust sometimes. Maybe we’ve got too much in. Maybe we’re thinking instead of reacting.”
Calley continued to reflect, saying, “I hate to say it this way but it looks like maybe we’re going to have to play ourselves into improvement. I probably gave us too much credit. I thought we were better than we truly are at this point. I thought we were better on both sides of the ball than we truly are. And, not taking anything away from our kids — they played their guts out — they’re just not really football smart. I’m on the headsets for both sides of the ball and I don’t know if there was a play during the game where all 11 people executed.
“It’s fixable, if you can be coachable and you can learn from your mistakes,” he asserted. “It’s all about, to me, cognitive football knowledge. We’ve got some very good athletes. Sometimes we just go brain dead.
“But it all comes down to one person and that one person is me,” the coach reiterated. “Put it on me. We will get it fixed.”
Benton wound up running 69 plays and picking up 364 yards on offense, 228 of than in the air with Maertens compleing 18 of 26 passes for 228 yards, though the Hornets picked him off three times. Harris, who ran four times for 50 yards, caught eight of Maertens’ passes for 148 yards.
Bryant had 46 snaps and compiled 248 yards, 208 of that on the ground, led by Brushawn Hunter’s 94 yards on nine carries. He was injured late and wasn’t on the field for the Hornets’ final possession. Several players on both teams suffered from cramps in the heat and humidity.
Defensively, linebacker Kyle Lovelace led the Hornets with 13 tackles. Defensive end Ryan Hall had 12 including a sack. Safety Brenden Young got in on 11 stops, linebacker Ben Bruick eight and d-tackle Cameron Murray seven. Bruick and Lovelace each had an interception. So did Steven Murdock. His pick came on the last play of the game, a last-gasp deep ball to the goal-line from 37 yards out.
The Hornets forced a Benton punt on its second possession of the game and proceeded to tie it with a 12-play, 71-yard drive in which the Hornets converted a trio of third-down situations. The biggest of those came on a third-and-5 at the Benton 30. Warner scrambled away from the flow and reached the sideline. He got to the 3 before being rolled out of bounds. Boyle scored on the next play and
Alex Denker’s extra point kick tied it 7-7.
Benton’s offense reached its 32 where, on a third-and-11, Maertens completed a 17-yard pass to Harris. The two combined on a 13-yard connection to the Bryant 38. Throwing for the third consecutive play, Maertens was picked off by Bruick who returned it all they way to the Benton 27.
Runs of 11 and 12 yards by Hunter set up Boyle’s 6-yard touchdown run. Denker booted it to 14-7 with 8:38 left in the half.
Benton’s answering drive was impressive, covering 72 yards in 14 plays. On a third-and-10 at the Bryant 49, Maertens threw to Harris for 24 yards, getting the pass away just as he was being hit.
Still, the drive nearly stalled at the 6 as the Hornets’ defense stiffened. But Harris’ fourth-down run found paydirt. Grant Hinze kicked the extra point to knot it up.
On a 15-yard scramble by Warner and a 7-yard pass to Hunter, the Hornets drove into Benton territory. But they had to punt with just over a minute left in the half.
They got the ball first in the second half but, after a 12-yard run by Hunter, couldn’t overcome a 5-yard loss. Warner punted Benton back to the 3 and it looked like the Hornets might force a three-and-out and get the ball back in good field position. But on third down, Maertens found Harris again on a deep post for 49 yards.
The Panthers rode that momentum to the 13 where Maertens tried to throw a slant pass only to have Bryant corner Drew Tipton jump the route and knock the ball into the air. Lovelace gathered it in and returned to the 24.
The teams traded punts after that. Early in the fourth quarter, the Panthers converted another fourth down at the Bryant 37 but the Hornets forced two lost-yardage plays resulting in another punt.
Harris’ kick rolled out of bounds at the Hornets’ 8 with 8:18 left in the game. On a speed sweep, Hunter broke a tackle in the backfield and raced up the left sideline for 40 yards. A play later, he picked up 11.
On first down at the Benton 42, Warner scrambled for 10 yards before being hit out of bounds. Unfortunately, the flag for that infraction wasn’t the only one on the play. The Hornets were cited for holding deep in the backfield. Both were marked off and the result was Bryant at the Panthers’ 46 with a first-and-14.
They were unable to overcome that. A third-down pass by Warner fell incomplete and a punt followed.
In the final 4:41, the Panthers got two possession and Bryant one. Big stops by Hall then Devon Alpe and Young helped end Benton’s first chance. The Panthers put themselves in position to keep the drive alive with a third-and-1 at the 42 but a procedure penalty cost them. Maertens was hauled down short on a third-down scramble forcing a punt.
Bryant, despite the unavailability of Hunter, appeared to have something going when Warner completed a pair of 11-yard passes to Evan Lee and Paul Tierney, respectively. On first-and-10 at their own 37, the Hornets tried to go to the air again but Warner had the ball slip out of his hand. Though he wound up pouncing on it back inside the 30, it was ruled an incomplete pass.
On the next play, however, junior Gunnar Burks was in at quarterback. Burks had rushed the ball five times earlier in the game but needed to throw with time running out. He rolled left and appeared to have Tierney open down the left sideline only to have Benton safety Stone Paul close on the ball and intercept.
The Panthers’ new opportunity appeared to be futile as Mario Waits then Hall sacked Maertens on consecutive plays. On a third-and-22, however, they got new life thanks to a pass interference call. A second third down play was negated by a holding penalty against the Panthers.
The third try was a charmer as the Benton quarterback found Harris one more time for 24 yards. But Benton was out of timeouts. After a 6-yard pass to Sam Baker, Maertens had to “clock” the ball leaving his team :09, time for one last play at the Hornets’ 37.
The result was Murdock’s game-ending interception. The senior safety made a bid at a return but was forced out of bounds just outside the 30.
In many ways, the Salt Bowl is a season unto itself. It’s over now and the Hornets will start their second of four seasons next Friday at home against Little Rock McClellan. Their third season will be the conference slate that starts Sept. 26. That’s when they’ll begin their quest for the fourth season, the State playoffs.
HORNETS 14, PANTHERS 14
Score by quarters
Benton 7 7 0 0 — 14
Bryant 7 7 0 0 — 14
BENTON — Green 14 pass from Maertens (Hinze kick), 8:46
BRYANT — Boyle 3 run (Denker kick), 0:33
BRYANT — Boyle 6 run (Denker kick), 8:38
BENTON — Harris 6 run (Hinze kick), 2:37
First downs 20 12
Rushes-yds 42-137 34-208
Passing 18-27-3 5-12-1
Passing yds 228 40
Punts-avg. 4-42.0 5-36.4
Fumbles-lost 1-0 0-0
Rushing: BRYANT, Bru.Hunter 9-94, Warner 9-67, Boyle 6-20, Burks 5-20, Turner 5-7; BENTON, Harris 4-50, Shamlin 10-35, Dyer 8-24, Bra.Hunter 7-19.
Passing (C-A-I-Y): BRYANT, Warner 5-10-0-40, Burks 0-1-1-0, Lee 0-1-0-0; BENTON, Maertens 18-26-3-228, Harris 0-1-0-0.
Receiving: BRYANT, Lee 2-17, Bru.Hunter 2-12, Tierney 1-11; BENTON, Harris 8-148, Dyer 5-36, Baker 3-27, Green 2-17.