Any coach will tell you, when you’re up against a team that may be the best in the state, a defending champion, your team has to play nearly perfect to compete, let alone win.
Mistakes — several small ones and a few big ones — bring a high cost against great teams and that’s where the Bryant Hornets found themselves Friday night against the top-ranked, defending 7A champion Fayetteville Bulldogs at Bryant Stadium.
The Bulldogs scored seven times in the game and only once had to drive more than 52 yards. Starting field position for three touchdown series in the first half was Bryant’s 37, the Fayetteville 48, Bryant’s 7. In the second half, after the lone long drive, an 80-yard march, they scored after setting up shop at the Bryant 20, 38 and 41.
The result was a 43-10 loss for the Hornets in a game that just didn’t feel that lopsided until that late barrage.
Wake Forest signee Taylor Powell completed 17 of 29 passes with an interception, three touchdowns and 212 yards. He also ran for two scores. Sophomore Darius Bowers added 5 completions in 6 throws for 44 yards.
The back-breaker for the Hornets came late in the first half. They trailed just 14-7 at that point and had forced Fayetteville to punt on back-to-back possessions. Bryant had the ball and, after a 20-yard completion from sophomore Ren Hefley to senior Landon Smith, had a first down at their own 41 with designs on a tying touchdown and grabbing all the momentum going into half.
The drive stalled, however. After LaTavion Scott was stopped for a 4-yard loss on first down, the Hornets just couldn’t recover. On a fourth-and-8 at the 43, Hayden Ray came on to punt. It figured that he would kick the Bulldogs deep enough into their own territory, they might not have enough time to add a score, particularly in light of Bryant’s defensive work to that point.
But a high snap sailed over Ray’s head. He chased it down and, rather that giving up a scoop and score to the Bulldogs or a short field to work with, he kicked it through the end zone, figuring that would be a safety, two points for the Bulldogs and a Bryant free kick with under three minutes left in the half.
But the ruling was that kicking a rolling football is illegal. Thus a penalty was assessed from the spot where Ray kicked it, half the distance to the goal line. Fayetteville was given possession at the Bryant 7 and, though the defense made them use all three plays, Powell threw to Barrett Banister for a touchdown with 1:18 left in the half.
So, instead of going into the locker room down 14-7, suddenly the Hornets were looking up at a two-score deficit.
Bryant forced a big break when, on the second half kickoff, Fayetteville’s Andrew Ellis coughed up the football and Rondale Messer recovered at the Dogs’ 23. Three plays, however, only got the Hornets to the 18. Ray came on to boot a 35-yard field goal, however, to make it 20-10.
A penalty hurt the Hornets moments later. Ray’s kickoff was a touchback so the Bulldogs had their worst starting field position of the night at their own 20. Powell’s first pass was incomplete then, on a swing pass to Cody Gray, linebacker Marvin Moody broke into the Dogs’ backfield and threw Gray down for a loss of 4. But it was ruled that Moody got face mask on the tackle, a call that Bryant head coach Buck James disputed.
The call stood, though, and instead of the Bulldogs facing a third-and-14 at its own 16, they had a new set of downs at the 31
In nine plays, they reached the Bryant 3. The Hornets had stuffed a second-down run and a third-down pass fell incomplete. Fayetteville went for it on fourth down and Powell, off a tremendous fake to running back Nate Nolen, scored on a keeper standing up.
Down 26-10, the Hornets were never quite the same after that, though the defense forced a punt on the Dogs’ next possession. Fayetteville returned the favor. Banister ran back a Ray punt 19 yards to the Bryant 35. A major penalty was tacked on, so Fayetteville was 20 yards away from more points.
It looked like the Hornets might fight off that threat when Powell was sacked by sophomore linebacker Jakob Neel but, on the next play, the quarterback fired a perfect strike to Gray on a post pattern in the back of the end zone to make it 33-10.
The Bulldogs added a 38-yard touchdown drive after another Bryant punt and another good return by Banister. Again, Fayetteville faced a third-and-7 at the 35 when Powell connected with Kris Mulinga on a 34-yard pass. Powell then scored on a sneak.
The next Hornets’ punt was blocked by Fayetteville’s Trey Coulter. The Bulldogs took over at the Bryant 41 but got stymied. Rugby Young came on and drilled a 47-yard field goal to set the final score with 9:22 left to play.
Those pesky little things hurt the Hornets early in the game. On the opening possession, they picked up a first by converting a third down on a 7-yard pass from Beaux Bonvillain to Smith. But, on the next play, a false start pushed them back. DeAmonte Terry got 10 yards with a nice run, setting up a second-and-5 at the Hornets 40.
But Bonvillain and Terry didn’t mesh on the handoff and a fumble resulted. Fayetteville’s Daniel Bradach recovered.
Just 37 yards away from paydirt, the Bulldogs scored in two plays. The first was an incomplete pass. The second was a touchdown pass to Brennan Lewis.
On the Hornets’ second series, they appeared to convert a third-and-4 from their own 38 when Terry crashed for 5 yards. But it was negated by a procedure penalty and, a play later, Ray was in to punt for the first time.
The defense got the ball back, however, when safety Mike Jones tracked down a deep pass by Powell for an interception at the Bryant 17.
The Hornets went three-and-out and Ray punted the Bulldogs to their own 48. They scored in seven plays with Nolen crossing the goal line from the 5 on a third-and-2.
So Bryant was looking up at a 14-0 deficit. But the sledding got tougher for the Bulldogs after that. The teams traded punts with the Hornets winding up with the ball at their own 26 as the first quarter neared an end.
Terry slashed for 10 yards then Hefley hit Reece Coates for 9 yards to set up a fourth-and-1 at the 45. Needing to keep the drive alive, James had the Hornets go for it. Out of the Wildcat formation, Terry got 5 yards.
Hefley hit a 7-yard pass to Smith and, later, converted a third down with a 6-yard throw to Luke Curtis. Facing a third-and-4 at the Fayetteville 14, Cameron Vail, in at quarterback, tossed a 13-yard pass to Curtis off a bootleg. And, despite a penalty on first-and-goal at the 1, Jeremiah Long skirted left end and still got into the end zone from the 6.
Ray’s extra point make it 14-7.
The defense followed up by halting a Fayetteville possession near midfield. Madre Dixon made a tackle for a loss then Andrew Hayes broke up a pass. When a third-down throw fell incomplete, the Bulldogs had to punt it back to the Hornets, who were gathering momentum.
That continued with the Hefly-Smith connection for 20 yards. But three plays later, the punt snap got away and the tide began to turn.
The 43 points was the most scored against Bryant since a 45-40 loss at Fort Smith Northside in 2011. The final deficit of 33 points was the largest since a 35-0 loss to El Dorado in 1998.
Bryant, now 1-1, travels to Lake Hamilton next Friday for their final non-conference contest.