A lot of times, special teams play a kind of hidden role in a football team’s success. It’s subtle things like a punter turning the field position around or coverage teams preventing significant returns; even a kicker putting kickoffs in the end zone for touchbacks can be overlooked.
But sometimes, special teams can be spectacular, an obvious factor, a difference maker. And such was the case Friday night when the Bryant Hornets’ Drew Tipton blocked an extra point, Hunter Fugitt blocked a punt, and Mark Nelson blocked a field goal attempt.
Spurred by that and a pair of long field goals by Alex Denker (who also just happened to boot kickoffs for touchbacks three times), the Hornets scored 34 unanswered points to wipe out an early 6-0 deficit as they won their 7A/6A-Central Conference opener against the Russellville Cyclones.
Tipton’s block kind of took the sting out of Russellville’s 56-yard touchdown pass from Michael Mullin to Tony Jones on the Cyclones’ fifth snap of the game.
Fugitt’s block turned a deficit into a lead as senior safety Steven Murdock scooped up the deflection at the 2 and stepped into the end zone. It gave Bryant a 10-6 advantage.
Nelson’s block came at the end of the first series of the second half spoiling Russellville’s bid to cut into Bryant’s 17-6 lead. Nelson scooped and sprinted to the Bryant 30, setting up a drive that resulted in Denker’s second field goal. His first one came from 41 yards out with room to spare. The second came from 45 yards away with plenty of leaway.
“We’re proud of the extra point and field goal blocks, proud of the guys on the punt block team,” said Bryant defensive coordinator Steve Griffith. “We had seen something we felt like we could exploit. Of course, you can look at it all you want but you’ve got to execute on the field. We came out and got it done. We came close to getting another (punt block) in the second half, just missed it.”
The Hornets’ offense accumulated 375 yards on the night after a slow start. Senior quarterback Brandan Warner completed his first seven passes and wound of 11 of 12 for 101 yards and a touchdown to Evan Lee, who caught four throws for 73 yards.
Bryant amassed 274 yards rushing with four runners contributing 49 yards or more. Sevonte Turner led with 88 yards on 17 totes with a touchdown.
Russellville finished with 301 yards of offense with Mullin completing 25 of 34 passes for 254 yards and the touchdown. But the Cyclones were held to 47 yards rushing, all by Kentrell Scott, who came in as the second leading rusher among Central Conference backs.
The Hornets forced Russellville into 12 plays that lost yardage including a sack by Fugitt.
The big, aggressive Cyclones defense stifled Bryant’s offense on the opening series of the game. Two of the first three plays lost yardage setting up Denker’s first punt.
After Russellville scored, two Bryant running plays were stuffed. Warner completed his first pass to Aaron Orender but, on the way out of bounds, a Russellville helmet popped the ball out of the receiver’s hands and the Cylclones’ Cole McKown recovered at the Bryant 45.
Jones’ touchdown reception had come on a bubble screen, something the Cyclones used a great deal all night. But, after the fumble, Bryant cut down receiver Co-Chese Temple-Laws for a loss on one of those screens.
That led to Russellville’s first punt. Kicker Allen Daiber tried to roll one dead inside the 5 but it got into the end zone for a touchback.
“We went to our 3-4 package,” Griffith said, acknowledging that the adjustment was made after the first possession produced the touchdown. “We had worked on their 21 personnel. They’ve been in that about 60 percent of the time (in the previous three games); two running backs, fullback, tailback, tight end, pounding the ball downhill. That’s kind of what we expected when they came out.
“But they came out in spread personnel so we decided right away, ‘Let’s just go to our “air force” package,’ the 3-4 look,” he continued. “It gives us a better chance to spread out and play the field, especially if they were going to go empty (backfield). It’s a good package to attack screens.
“Then our guys inside did a nice job of taking care of the run,” the coach noted. “We really only had four guys in the box. It’s a package where we have a lot of stunts but we didn’t have to use a lot of them. We played pretty vanilla out of it, kept it basic. We had a couple of breakdowns and let them get down in our end of the field but the kids did a good job of bowing their backs and saying, ‘You’re not getting in.’”
Linebacker Ben Bruick and Tipton, a cornerback, each finished with 10 tackles to lead Bryant. Safety Brenden Young was in on six stops.
The Bryant offense perked up after Turner sliced through the Russellville defense for 27 yards to start the first scoring drive. Warner converted a crucial third down situation with a 12-yard keeper. Later, junior quarterback Gunnar Burks dashed for 11 yards as the drive reached the Cyclones’ 8.
Turner found the end zone on the next snap but the play was negated by a penalty. A screen pass resulted in a 7-yard loss so it looked like the Hornets might be denied points on the march only to have Denker drill his 41-yarder to make it 6-3.
In fact, both of Denker’s field goals came after penalties wiped out touchdowns. (Bryant was only penalized three times in the game, Russellville once.)
After Denker’s kickoff into the end zone for a touchback, the Cyclones picked up a first down but then went backwards. Scott was dropped for a loss by Drew Allen on first down. On the next play, the Russellville running back was knocked down for another loss by Hayden Knowles and Cameron Murray. An incomplete pass forced a punt with Daiber lining up inside his 15.
The Hornets put on a charge and got several players close. Fugitt, despite being held, reached out and blocked the kick almost right off of Daiber’s foot. Murdock was the first one to get to the loose ball.
Denker’s extra point made it 10-6 with 8:38 left in the half.
Mullin completed three passes in a row as the Cyclones started to drive the ball, picking up a pair of first downs. But a middle screen to Scott was foiled by Mario Waits for a loss then end Ryan Hall tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage and Russellville punted again with Daiber now using a rugby-style kick.
The punt pushed the Hornets back to their own 10 but they covered the 90 yards in 11 plays, adding to the lead. Kaylon Boyle’s 52-yard run set things up. With just over a minute left in the half, Bryant faced a third-and-8 at the Cyclones’ 12. Warner looked to throw but got pressure. He hurried his pass but put enough touch on it that it got over Russellville corner James Woods. Lee looked back at the final second and somehow hauled in the pass for the touchdown.
It was 17-6 at the half.
But Russellville got the ball to start the third quarter and appeared to be on its way to an answering score, keyed by a 62-yard pass play from Mullin to Temple-Laws. Scott ran for 12 to the Bryant 9 but, on first down there, Kyle Lovelace tackled Scott for a loss. Murdock broke up a second-down pass as Knowles rushed Mullin.
Mullin threw to Scott on third down but it came up short of the end zone at the 3. Needing points, the Cyclones brought Daiber in to attempt a chip-shot 20-yard field goal only to have Nelson break through for the block.
A 25-yard pass from Warner to Lee then a 16-yard dash by Turner helped Bryant drive to the Russellville 23. The Hornets pulled a surprise at that point with Warner throwing to H-back Demaja Price, who snuck out of the backfield into the great wide open down the middle of the field. He scored untouched but the play was negated by a disputed penalty, illegal man downfield.
Two plays later, however, on came Denker to drill the 45-yarder, making it 20-6.
Fugitt’s sack for a loss of 11 thwarted Russellville’s answering possession. Punted back to their 22, the Hornets’ offense started to gash the Cyclones. Turner ran for 12 then Warner hit Paul Tierney for 17 yards. Sophomore DeAmonte Terry, with fresh legs, ripped off a 17-yard run and, two plays later, Burks kept for a determined, tackle-breaking gallop to paydirt from 24 yards out.
Mullin led the Cyclones on a drive to the Bryant 28 but Fugitt and Connor Chapdelaine hauled down Scott for a loss and, two plays later, Mullin’s scramble on fourth down came up a yard short as the Hornets held.
A nine-play, 80-yard drive sealed Bryant’s win. Turner scored from the 5 with 6:33 left. The key plays of the drive included a 6-yard run by Boyle to convert a third down and, on another third down, a 24-yard burst by Terry. Warner and Lee connected again for 27 yards, setting up Turner’s TD run.
Bryant reserves Dalton Daniels and Brice Hardin sidetracked Russellville’s subsequent series, sniffing out a screen and making a tackle for a loss on Temple-Laws.
On the final Bryant series, fullback Drew Alpe, who usually helps clear the way for teammates, got a chance to run the ball three times with another good run negated by penalty. Denker wound up punting at the end of that final possession with 1:43 left. His only other punt had come on the very first possession.
Bryant continues conference play next Friday against Little Rock Catholic at War Memorial Stadium. The Rockets won their league opener 7-6 at Alma.
HORNETS 34, CYCLONES 6
Score by quarters
Russellville 6 0 0 0 — 6
BRYANT 0 17 10 7 — 34
RUSSELLVILLE — Jones 56 pass from Mullin (kick blocked), 8:34
BRYANT — Denker 41 field goal, 11:15
BRYANT — Murdock 2 blocked punt return (Denker kick), 8:38
BRYANT — Lee 12 pass from Warner (Denker kick), 1:16
BRYANT — Denker 45 field goal, 5:49
BRYANT — Burks 24 run (Denker kick), 1:03
BRYANT — Turner 5 run (Denker kick), 6:33
First downs 14 18
Rushes-yds 18-47 41-274
Passing 25-34-0 11-12-0
Passing yds 254 101
Punts-avg. 5-31.4 2-38.0
Fumbles-lost 2-0 1-1
Penalities yds 1-10 3-19
Rushing: BRYANT, Turner 17-88, Boyle 6-61, Burks 7-52, Terry 4-49, Warner 4-18, Dr.Alpe 3-6; RUSSELLVILLE, Scott 14-42, Mullin 3-0.
Passing (C-A-I-Y): BRYANT, Warner 11-12-0-101; RUSSELLVILLE, Mullin 25-34-0-254.
Receiving: BRYANT, Lee 4-73, Tierney 3-25, Orender 2-14, Royal 1-(-4), Turner 1-(-7); RUSSELLVILLE, Jones 12-116, Temple-Laws 10-127, Scott 3-11.