Photos by Kevin Nagle and Rick Nation
By Rob Patrick
LITTLE ROCK — Cameron Vail turned the tide. DeAmonte Terry carried the load. Hayden Ray made the difference. And Collin Welch saved the day.
Of course, those guys had plenty of help from their Bryant Hornets teammates but each of those four Bryant Hornets had a crucial role in a heart-stopping 10-7 victory over the rival Benton Panthers in the 17th annual Salt Bowl on Friday night at War Memorial Stadium.
It might not have been a scoring fest nor a work of art but in the long history of the rivalry, it will go down as one of the most hotly contested between two of the most closely-matched teams.
The Hornets brought home the coveted Salt Bowl trophy for the 14th time in the 17 meetings. Since 1999, Bryant teams are 15-1-2 in the big game (though they still haven’t quite caught up to the Panthers in the 43-year history of the rivalry).
How ‘bout Collin Welch?
With the Hornets clinging to that 3 point lead and the seconds ticking away, Benton ran a flea-flicker, the old hook-and-ladder, from the Bryant 44. Everyone knew it would probably be the Panthers’ last gasp.
So quarterback Nate Beck fired a pass to tight end Clayton Maertens on a short curl route. Before the Hornets defenders surrounding him to make contact — before Maertens even came down with the leaping catch — he pushed a lateral to Preston Stone on the run toward the right sideline with a lot of room.
As he reached the corner, he passed Welch, who turned to run after him. With an angle and complete hustle, Welch stayed on his heels, catching Stone as he got inside the 15. Welch wrangled him out of bounds at the 10 as time expired and the Hornets celebrated their win.
How ‘bout Hayden Ray?
The senior kicker hit the right upright with a first-half field-goal attempt but, with the game tied, he came back to drill a 25-yard field goal to give the Hornets their first lead of the game with 7:37 left to play. In addition, his punting gave the Hornets a lift and a leg-up on field position much of the night. His punts including a 60-yarder.
How ‘bout DeAmonte Terry?
The senior running back had a hit-and-miss night much of the way against Benton’s aggressive run-blitz defense. But when the Hornets got a big swing in momentum in the second half, he kept after it and burned the Panthers with some nifty cuts. Running from the wildcat on a second-and-goal from the 10 after he’d been dropped for an 8-yard loss, Terry looked to throw but found the left side open and dashed inside the 5. He was hit about the 3 and somehow kept his knee off the ground until after his headlong dive at the goal line while flanked by a pair of Panthers.
The touchdown and Ray’s extra point tied the game with 5:56 left in the third quarter.
How ‘bout Cameron Vail?
Vail provided that big swing in momentum. Leading 7-0 midway through the third quarter, the Panthers had driven from their own 12 out to the 33. On a third-and-11, Beck fired a pass into the seam that Vail picked off around the 46, kept his feet and wove his way back to the 13.
Suddenly, there was new life in the huge crowd on the home side of the stands as well as the Hornets themselves.
Vail’s play set up Terry’s game-tying touchdown.
“It was a gritty win,” said Bryant head coach Buck James after his first Salt Bowl. “We won that football game, really, in June, July and August. That’s just the truth of it. Our kids played with great heart and determination.
“I ain’t going to say we played really good but our defense did,” he asserted. “Our defense came to play. Our offense did enough not to get us beat.”
The Hornets defense gave up some passing yardage but kept most everything in front of them and tackled well. Beck completed 28 of 50 passes but, along with Vail’s interception, Caylin Allen made one to turn back a Panthers’ foray into the red zone. Safety Mike Jones also caused and recovered a fumble.
Hayden Knowles and Madre Dixon put Beck under a lot of pressure.
“Those guys played hard, played physical, got a lot of turnovers and we put the ball in good field position,” said defensive coordinator Darrell Burnett of his charges. “But we made a lot of mistakes.”
Benton rushed for 109 yards but 50 of that came on one play when the Panthers faced a fourth-and-1 at midfield. Working from the wildcat as they did on all short-yardage situations, the Panthers had running back Beau Brewer at quarterback. He not only got the first down, he broke outside of the pile and went the distance.
Matt Warrick added the extra point and the first points of the game were on the board with 2:50 left in the half.
That stood up as the halftime score.
In the second half, the Hornets really got tough on third down. Benton was only able to convert one of its seven third-down plays in the second half.
“The thing was, we game-planned something all week as far as their pass protection,” Burnett related. “They did a lot of shifting and sliding so it took away some of our inside pressure. So we changed it up and started blitzing from the three-man surface to put some pressure in their quarterback’s face. And it worked a few times. There were a few high throws, a few throws quick. That’s what we wanted.
“We fixed some fundamental things, a lot of errors we were making as far as getting off blocks, creating angles, job assignments,” he said. “We played a lot faster. We took some things out (of the game plan) to help the linebackers and help the d-linemen.”
Benton’s defense was tough too. Bryant only managed 21 yards rushing in the first half. Senior quarterback Beaux Bonvillain completed 12 of 20 passes to that point but for only 99 yards.
“We’ve got to get an identity on offense,” James stated. “We’ve got to get something we’re good at. We’re inexperienced and young. Even where we have older guys, they’re inexperienced too. So, as soon as we can get good at something — I think our defense is good enough to keep us in some ballgames if the offense will keep the ball away from other people and score a few points.
“We came in at halftime and I told them I thought we could score a couple of touchdowns and win the ballgame,” he said. “And the defense was playing well enough that we thought we could hold them.”
Indeed, after Benton was good on 3 of 8 third-down situations in the first half, the Panthers only converted once in seven third-down plays in the second half.
“I felt like we could score 21, 28 points,” James continued. “We kept shooting ourselves in the foot with penalties, negative plays, and dropped passes. If we can eliminate that, we could get where we’re very, very competitive on offense. But it’s just going to take a minute for us to understand our jobs, our roles and what we can do against other people’s good people.”
Benton’s opening series of the second half reached midfield and, on a first down, Beck found room on a keeper. But on his way, Jones stripped out the ball and got to the loose ball first before a pile-up.
Terry broke a 13-yard run for the Hornets but the drive stalled and Ray punted Benton back to its 12. The Panthers pushed out to the 33 before Vail’s game-turning oskie that set up the tying score.
“DeAmonte Terry ran well,” James said. “I thought the offensive line got a little bit of push but (Benton) was blitzing so much that I just felt like maybe they were going to run themselves out of some plays. I think that’s probably what happened, more so than we were just blocking them.”
The teams started trading punts. Just before the end of the third quarter, Ray turned the filed over. From the Bryant 29, he unleashed a 60-yard punt, forcing Benton to start deep in their own end.
The Hornets bottled them up and forced another punt. But since the Panthers were deep in their own end, the Hornets got the ball back at the Benton 45.
Sparked by a 17-yard dash by Terry and a 14-yard pass from Bonvillain to Reece Coates, the Hornets drove to the Benton 9. Facing a fourth-and-1, James decided to call on his veteran kicker. Ray drilled the 25-yarder to give the Hornets the lead.
The Panthers went three and out but Harris unloaded to turn the field over for his team with a 55-yard punt.
Terry rushed four times in a row to start the next series, helping the team whittle on the clock. Unfortunately, a penalty wiped out a 13-yard pass from Beck to Curtis. Hefley came on and nearly completed a pass to Tucker for big yardage but cornerback Junior Hendrix just tipped the ball as it came toward the Bryant receiver, spoiling the play.
Benton’s subsequent series, which started with 3:36 left to play, came up short after they reached midfield. Facing a fourth-and-10, the Panthers decided to go for it and it looked like a big play in the making. Benton ran a double reverse with Brandon Hunter winding up with the ball and an apparent avenue for first-down yardage and more.
But Welch fought off a block and, with a dive, got enough of Hunter to trip him up short of the first down.
The Hornets used as much clock as they could after taking over with 1:50 to go. Another fine punt by Ray pinned the Panthers inside their 15 with :44 showing on the clock.
It was down to :13 after Hunter hauled in a pass and raced for 33 yards to the Bryant 44. An incompletion stopped the clock but just seven seconds remained. The Panthers appeared to have just the right play called and appeared to be on their way to a winning touchdown but for Welch.
“My hat’s off to them,” James said. “They played extremely hard. They had a good scheme, what they did on defense. We weren’t really ready for what they did. My hat’s off to them and their coaching staff.”
“It’s a win and we’re happy,” Burnett related. “Overall, the kids just played well. But we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Up next for the Hornets is a visit from the defending Class 7A State champion Fayetteville.