LITTLE ROCK — Resilience — it's one of the many facets that provide the stark contrast between today's Bryant Hornets football program and the one prior to 1998.
Now, the last time we checked on the Hornets football team in action, they were turning a 41-14 deficit to West Memphis into a 41-35 nailbiter in the Class AAAAA State Playoffs. And, though, there are new faces around and familiar ones in new places, that never-say-die mentality — resilience — continues in the program.
Though not nearly as dramatic but infinitely more successful, the Hornets were on the short end of a 14-0 deficit (which was very nearly 21-0) against the two-time defending Class AAA State Champion Warren Lumberjacks on Monday in the nightcap of the four-game Alltel/Hootens.com Kickoff Classic at War Memorial Stadium. They had surrendered 181 yards of total offense while mustering just 66 for themselves in the first quarter.
No problem. The Hornets reeled off 30 unanswered points on the way to a 43-20 victory to open the 2003 season.
Indicative of the team's transformation was the plight of junior cornerback Todd Bryan, who is also a record-setting kicker for the Hornets. Bryan was burned on a 70-yard pass completion that set up Warren's first touchdown on the opening series of the game, but bounced back to make three interceptions, half of the turnovers the Bryant defense forced.
Likewise, though Bryan missed a couple of extra points, he contributed a 34 yard field goal that gave the Hornets their first lead of the game, 16-14, late in the first half.
"Todd just kept his head up, didn't get down on himself," noted Bryant defensive coordinator Steve Griffith. "We told him, ‘They're going to keep throwing it your way and you're going to do a good job. That's why we put you in there.'"
"The defense kept us in it," stated Paul Calley, victorious in his head coaching debut. "They came up with some big plays. They're the ones that turned the tide. The momentum swung back in our favor when our defense started making plays like they did. Todd Bryan, I thought, played great."
Warren scored on two of its first three possessions. After the 70-yard pass play from junior quarterback Aaron Rowell to Darryl Adams who hauled in 10 passes for 173 yards in the game, Rowell snuck in from the 1 for the first score.
Warren's second series reached the Bryant 5 when the Hornets forced a fumble and linebacker Josh McClellan recovered.
The Hornets, thanks in large part to a 32-yard pass completion from Scott Peeler to Dustin Holland, pushed the ball out to the Warren 48 but, on a fourth-and-1, Zach Young was stopped short. And Warren turned the short field into points. Ricardo Kemp capped the drive with a 3-yard run to make it 14-0.
"We had some guys playing that hadn't played," noted Calley. "We had a coach calling plays that hasn't always called plays by himself but Coach (Terry) Harper and Coach (Josh) Floyd did a great job. If it hadn't been for them, we wouldn't have been nearly as successful on offense. They made the adjustments in the passing game and the kids executed. All the credit goes to them."
When Bryant went to a spread offense under Calley's predecessor Daryl Patton, opponents began springing all sorts of different defenses against them. Some would go so far as to junk their normal sets and strategies to try to surprise the Hornets. Calley was often a key in recognizing what the opponent was doing and advising Patton about what strategy to use to combat it. Now at the helm, Calley has Floyd and Harper working on recognition and adjustment. The changes started taking hold when the Hornets got the ball at the end of the first quarter and drove 66 yards in nine plays for their first score.
Senior Scott Peeler, who was 23 of 37 for 317 yards and four touchdowns in his first varsity start at quarterback, capped the drive with a 3-yard toss to Richie Wood (seven catches, 116 yards). Along the way, he connected twice with Blake Zuber for 21 and 13 yards, respectively.
"We started taking advantage of the coverage they were playing us," Calley noted. "We started out trying to run the ball a little bit. They were keeping seven in the box and, after our first possession, we knew we were going to have to work on that cover-two, the way they were playing it.
"Blake Zuber made a couple of big catches to help get the ball down close to the end zone and when we got that score, it's like we got our heads back up and started playing football.
We've been behind before," Calley emphasized. "Our kids don't quit. They keep coming."
In turn, the defense stepped up. Though Rowell and Adams connected for 36 yards, a play later, Bryan picked off a pass and returned it 58 yards to the Warren 7. Senior David Lister scored from the 3, moments later.
Though Bryan missed the extra point and Warren still led 14-13, the tide had turned. Suddenly, Warren was struggling to move the football. But Griffth said no big adjustments were made.
"Nothing really changed," he said. "We just challenged the guys up front to continue getting good pressure and told our d-backs, ‘Hey, we know they're going to put the ball in the air. We've got confidence in you, keep breaking toward the football and good things are going to happen.' And that's what the kids did.
"We kept fresh bodies in there," he added. "Coach (Brad) Stroud tried to keep guys moving in and out up front to continue to keep fresh legs in there and I think that had some effect. We tried to run several different stunts at them but they really did a pretty good job of picking them up. We'd get close and hit him but it was always after he'd gotten rid of the ball. But I think it started to get to him after awhile."
Bryan's go-ahead field goal was set up by a short Warren punt from deep in their own end. (A jarring tackle by safety Travis Queck had broken up a pass that would've gotten the Lumberjacks out of the hole.)
Bryant took over at the 22 and, despite a sack that cost 15 yards, got to the 17 where Bryan booted it through with 3:39 left in the half.
Bryan's second intereception came moments later and, though the Hornets were forced to punt, they got the ball back when the kick was muffed by Ricardo Kemp. Zach Cardinal recovered for Bryant at the Warren 40 with 1:25 to go in the half.
Three plays later, Peeler and Cardinal combined of a 20-yard touchdown pass with just 27 seconds left. Bryan knocked home the PAT and Bryant led 23-14 at the half.
Bryan's third interception set up the Hornets' first score of the second half. The pick came at the 10 on a long pass from Rowell. He returned it back to the Warren 44. Despite a trio of penalties, two of them substantial, the Hornets cashed in. A 37-yard reception-and-run by Cardinal set up the 34-yard touchdown strike from Peeler to Wood. Bryan kicked it to 30-14.
Warren, using short passing and sweeps needed 10 plays to cover 74 yards for an answering score. Adams scored on a 7-yard run but a try for two was foiled when the Hornets, led by defensive tackle Jesse Nordman, sacked Rowell, leaving it 30-20.
After having a 45-yard touchdown play that included a spectacular run by Cardinal after catching a short pass from Peeler negated by a penalty, the Hornets' Bo Lee intercepted a Rowell pass to set up a Bryant score. The drive featured the longest running play of the night, a 19-yard burst by Lister. A play later, Cardinal got his TD on a 20-yard pass play in which he broke a pair of tackles at the 15 and dashing in to the end zone.
Lister's second touchdown on a 9-yard run with 4:00 left in the game, put the finishing touches on the win.
The Hornets now have 10 days to get ready for their next game, the Sept. 12 renewal of the rivalry with Benton for the Salt Bowl trophy.