Hornets knock off Top 10 Cyclones
EDITOR’S NOTE: Because the look back at each day in Bryant athletic history has been so favorably received during the time when there was no sports during the COVID-19 shutdown, BryantDaily.com will continueposting past stories of Bryant athletics either posted on BryantDaily.com (from 2009 to the present) or published in the Bryant Times (from 1998 to 2008).
By ROB PATRICK
RUSSELLVILLE — At the beginning of the 2004 football season, most Bryant Hornets fans would’ve been pleased to know that their team would win two of their first three games this season. That’s because those three non-conference contests figured to be the toughest a Bryant team had ever faced to open a season.
Winning all three? Well, that would be almost more than one could hope for.
But, sure enough, with their 33-28 win over the Russellville Cyclones, who came in ranked anywhere from third to 10th in the State, that’s what the Hornets had done.
“Character win,” head coach Paul Calley called it. “That was one of the biggest wins since I’ve been here. You beat a program that’s been in the playoffs five out of the last six years, has been deep into the playoffs, contended for a State title, won a AAAAA-West title and they’re there every year. It makes your kids feel great, the confidence level goes up.”
A great place to be, going into the rugged AAAAA-Central Conference gauntlet, which begins Friday, Sept. 24, against the Little Rock Catholic Rockets at War Memorial Stadium.
“It was a great game for a fan to watch,” Calley acknowledged. “Our crowd – I guess it’s the people that really want to be there for the football game that are there. It’s not a social event. They’re there and they’re going to cheer. They were loud. I was trying to make adjustments after each series on the sideline and I was yelling at the top of my lungs, trying to talk to the kids and they couldn’t hear me. And I couldn’t hear them. It was a great atmosphere.”
Two Hornets seniors set records in the game. Todd Bryan kicked two field goals in the game to set a new state record for field goals in a career with 28, surpassing Kyle Magrini of Greenwood, who kicked 27 from 1999-2001, according to the Arkansas Activities Association record book.
In addition, Richie Wood surpassed his own school record for pass receiving yardage in the game. He nabbed 14 passes for 230 yards and three touchdowns. That would be the eighth highest yardage total in the AAA record book. Wood had set the school standard with 189 yards in the 2003 game against Benton.
Big Plays Early
The game started out like it would be a tennis match, going back and forth. The Bryant defense, which forced four turnovers and could’ve had three or four more, ended Russellville’s first possession with a fumble recovery at the Bryant 16.
The Hornets’ first offensive play wasn’t very encouraging as junior quarterback Anthony Mask was sacked for a 10-yard loss. But Brandon Butler plowed for 5 yards to the 11 then Mask went deep to senior wideout Richie Wood who caught it in stride and raced to the other end for an 89-yard touchdown play. (Just 1 yard short of the school record for longest pass play. Jeremie Wooten and Matt White teamed up on a 90-yarder in 2000.)
But back came Russellville, answering with a 76-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Eli Cranor to speedy Lamonte Payne.
The two quarterbacks had their moments. Both were pressured considerably by the opposition’s blitzing defenses but Mask wound up 24 of 45 for 369 yards and Cranor was 22 of 46 for 347 yards.
“Our defense played tremendous again,” Calley asserted. “They gave up a few big plays but you can’t not go after their quarterback. If you sit back in a zone, they’ll pick you apart. You’ve got to try to put pressure on them and when you do that, you’re going to give up some big plays, just like they did.”
With it tied 7-7, Bryant scored 12 unanswered points. Bryan kicked a 27-yard field goal when a drive stalled at the Russellville 10. Moments later, Bryan Griffith recovered a fumble at the Cyclones 33 leading to Mask and Wood teaming up again on a 24-yard TD pass. Bryan booted the extra point to make it 16-7.
Using a variety of kickoffs, Travis Cockerham prevented returns by the Cyclones’ speedy deep backs all night but, on the ensuing kick, the Hornets got a bonus. Cockerham’s ground-ball kick took the right hop, bounced off a Russellville player and was recovered by the Hornets’ Cody Agee at the Cyclone 35.
Bryant drove to the 7 and stalled but Bryan drove home his State record breaking field goal from 24 yards out to make it 19-7.
The Hornets appeared to be cruising and the Cyclones falling apart. But Russellville had proved to be explosive earlier and they did so again. A 45-yard connection from Cranor to Payne with a personal foul penalty tacked on set up an answering score. Still, the Hornets had Russellville facing a fourth-and-14 at the Bryant 21 before Cranor found Brandon Brown on a route over the middle for the 21-yard touchdown play.
But that was the last time Russellville completed that pass down the middle. Bryant adjusted and, in the second half, had three or four interceptions that were dropped, at least two of which were thrown down the middle.
Cyclones take a lead
Buoyed by their comeback, Russellville forced a Bryant punt. Taking advantage of a short kick, Cranor went right to Payne again and the result was a 59-yard touchdown that put the Cyclones ahead with 6:09 left in the half.
“They had us out-athleted there outside,” Calley acknowledged. “They could catch it and make one move and they were gone.
“Momentum was swinging real quick,” he noted. “We go from a high of being up two scores to being down in a matter of minutes.”
And Russellville made a bid to increase that lead. After another Bryant punt, the Cyclones drove to the Bryant 36, converted another fourth down to the 27 then went for the end zone. But Griffith made a leaping interception with 2:33 left in the half and it stayed 21-19 at the half.
More adversity struck the Hornets.
“Our offensive line – we hung in there,” Calley said. “(Starting guard) Brian Lee went out and didn’t get to start the second half because he was ill. We played a couple of sophomores and moved people around and I was proud of our guys for hanging in there. They could’ve folded but they didn’t.”
Already subbing for injured left tackle Nathan Parsons and playing right tackle while the starter there, David Hollis, moved to the left side, Matt Martin moved to left guard in place of starter Spenser Barksdale. Barksdale moved over to the right side for Lee. Sophomore Bracy Atkinson took over at Barksdale’s side at tackle. Later, Martin had to move back to tackle when Atkinson had some problems, and sophomore Jordan Mountjoy jumped in at guard. The only starter that wasn’t playing musical chairs was center Seth Lawson.
Mask hangs in
“We were piecing it together and Anthony was getting pressure,” Calley observed. “But he did a good job of standing in there and delivering the football. He’s maturing. I said at the beginning of the year, he had to mature and our defense had to carry us. And it has happened.”
Proof came in the third quarter when the Hornets surged back into the lead. The two teams traded punts with Bryant picking up a field-position advantage. The Hornet defense didn’t allow a Russellville first down in the second half until the final minute of the third quarter.
With 6:30 left in the period, the Hornets got it at the Russellville 40. Mask passed to Dustin Holland who used a teammate’s devastating downfield block to scamper 37 yards, just stepping out of bounds at the 3 before lunging into the end zone. A swing pass to Wood followed for the touchdown.
Mask and Wood then teamed up again for a two-point conversion and Bryant led 27-21.
After Hunter Nugent almost came up with an interception, Russellville had to punt again. And the Hornets drove 69 yards in eight plays to extend the lead. Mask and Holland teamed up again from 29 yards out. Holland wove his way through the secondary to paydirt after making the catch in the right flat.
Along the way, the Hornets converted two third-down situations, making them four of six on third down conversions to that point in the second half.
Safety or not?
Leading the game 33-21, the Hornets should’ve had more. On the Cyclones’ ensuing possession, a holding penalty pushed them back to their own 7. On second and 19, Cranor dropped into the end zone to pass. He was pressured by Bryant linebacker Zach Sanders and threw the ball away.
A flag was thrown for intentional grounding and the confusion started. The rules state that if a player is called for intentional grounding in his own end zone, it’s a safety. The defensive team is awarded two points and the offending team has to free-kick it to them.
But the official insisted that Cranor was at the 3-yard line when he threw the ball away which, according to the replay tape, was erroneous. He was at least three yards deep in the end zone. During Bryant’s protest, and a Russellville timeout, the Hornets didn’t even get the yardage marked off from the spot of the foul. The official signaled that the penalty had been declined much to the angst and surprise of the Bryant coaching staff.
When play resumed, Bryant’s Zach Kitchens almost came up with an interception but Russellville was able to punt the ball out of its own end zone and avoid any further stress.
Things started getting desperate for the Cyclones as the fourth quarter began to unfold. They drove to the Bryant 33 but faced a fourth-and-10 and decided to go for it. A bad snap didn’t help but Hollis and Colby Landers converged on the quarterback and the Hornets took over on downs.
A 30-yard pass from Mask to Holland got the Hornets into Russellville territory but they could get no closer than the 33. On fourth down, Bryan came on to attempt a 52-yard field goal. And he had plenty of leg to hit it. Unfortunately, it was just off to the left.
Calley lauded his special teams: “I thought our kickoff coverage team did a great job, Cockerham placing the ball. And Todd – he missed the 52-yard field goal but it would’ve been good from, it looked like, 60. He just barely missed it.
“When we didn’t get that safety, it made for a lot of drama towards the end,” added the coach. “That was just a blown call. If we’d have scored that field goal and gotten that safety and been up more than two scores, we wouldn’t have been near as nervous at the end.”
What made them nervous was that Russellville was able to score again on a drive that started with 6:47 left in the game. The 66-yard march needed two fourth-down conversions including the touchdown play, a fourth-and-3 pass from the 7 from Cranor to tight end Ferris Brown.
Kitchens recovered the ensuing onside kick at the 42, however. Still, the Hornets needed at least one first down to close out the game. It was a situation that Calley had bemoaned in Bryant’s previous win over El Dorado when his team could not grind it out to close out the game, running the ball when everyone knew they were going to run it.
Clinching first down
Though Butler picked up 6 yards on first down, the Hornets wound up facing a fourth-and-1 at their 49 with :14 left. They went back to Butler for the fourth straight time and he muscled in behind Hollis, Barksdale and Lawson for 2 yards and the first down on what turned out to be the final play of the game.
“We called the same play three times,” Calley said. “We ran our dive once then we ran our blast three times in a row. You’ve got to run behind Hollis. He’s our biggest, strongest, most-experienced lineman and he’s got to get it done. And he did. He blew that end off the ball.
“We didn’t want to have to punt the ball again because we’d come close to having a few blocked and we didn’t want them to return it. We just didn’t want to give them the ball back. They’re a threat from anywhere with no time left.”
Threat averted, Bryant was 3-0 for the fourth time in six seasons. But this time with wins over three State playoff contenders, Benton, El Dorado and Russellville.