There are a number of former Bryant Hornets and Conway Wampus Cats playing college football on Saturdays across the country. This week, the current clubs took the field for a rare weekend battle after severe weather dampened Friday night's Week 10 clash.
No. 1 Bryant (9-0, 7-0 Central) and No. 2 Conway (8-2, 6-1) have faced each other with the 7A Central crown and the top overall seed in the playoffs on the line the past four seasons, including this week.
Bryant, looking to hold its No. 1 ranking another week and winning its 50th straight game over an Arkansas opponent, fought through turnovers and penalties before fending off Conway for the 34-16 win at Hornet Stadium in Bryant and everything that comes with it, including a first-round bye in the 7A state playoffs.
"We need to rest, I guess," said Head Coach Buck James. "We have been through this. It gives us a chance to heal up from bumps and bruises, even though we are pretty healthy. It gives us a chance to work on some things we aren't good at and to work on some things we could do better."
The victory also secures the fourth straight undefeated conference season and third undefeated regular season in the past four years, with last year’s 24-21 loss to Longview (Texas) the Hornets only defeat since falling in Week 9 to North Little Rock in 2018.
"It is an amazing feat," James said. "They've gotten everyone's best shot. Seems like everyone plays their hardest against us. We don't always play great but we always play hard. It is unbelievable to do what they've done. But these guys have answered the bell each and every week for really the last four or five years.”
With both powerhouse programs rolling through the conference season, it set the stage for a dogfight Saturday under the lights of Hornet Stadium.
However, the game was uncharacteristic for the state's top two teams as there were a total of 11 turnovers – seven coming from the Cats.
Bryant sophomore quarterback Jordan Walker would be picked twice in the game, while the team's running backs would commit two fumbles as well. This comes on the heels of a four-turnover victory last week against North Little Rock.
"I think he makes plays," James said of Walker. "We just have to make better decisions. He is a player and a winner. We have a lot of confidence in both of those guys (backup Gideon Motes). It's not a knock at Jordan if we put Gideon in and it's not a knock at Gideon if we put Jordan in. That is just part of the process we are in right now."
Penalties have plagued Bryant all season as well and that did not change Saturday as the Hornets were flagged a total of 13 times for 111 yards. Seven flags flew in the first quarter alone, costing Bryant 70 yards in the process.
"That is a lot and we have to fix it," James said. "A lot of that is probably on our end (as a staff). We have to do a better job of coaching some things. We have to have kids that have a better understanding of what we are trying to accomplish. That's the beauty of high school football. It is part of the learning process."
Despite the final stat sheet, the game started hot for Bryant as the Hornets stopped Conway quickly with a three-and-out followed by the punt.
A good return from Drake Fowler set the Hornets up at the Conway 19. On the first play of offense, Walker would find running back Chris Gannaway for the 19-yard touchdown. Bryant led 7-0 with 10:51 left in the quarter.
Looking for something positive, Conway would string together a stellar series, but settled for a 31-yard field goal off the boot of kicker Adrian Mejia. Bryant would still lead 7-3 with 8:26 left in the quarter.
Then the mud began to thicken. Looking for another score to keep the pressure on, Walker would throw his first interception of the contest early in the series, setting the Cats up at the Bryant 23.
Despite great field position, Conway would again stall, settling for a 29-yard field goal from Mejia. Bryant led 7-6 with 7:04 still to tick in the first frame.
As for Bryant, the struggles continued the next couple of series, resulting in a punt and a James Martin fumble.
After forcing the fumble, Conway would snatch its only lead of the contest, going ahead 13-7 on a 2-yard run from southpaw quarterback Donovyn Omolo with four minutes left in the quarter.
Conway would cough the ball up its next series on a fumble from Omolo. Nick Briskey would recover, setting the Hornets up for its second score of the night.
Starting at their own 30, the Hornets would march 70 yards for the score on eight plays. Fueled mostly by the run, Bryant would take back the lead on a 3-yard carry from Walker. Bryant led 14-13 with 11:21 left in the half.
An interception by Bryant's Ethan Primus, his first of two, gave Bryant all the momentum.
Looking for another good drive, the Hornets used eight plays and a big horse-collar tackle to get in the end zone. Walker would hit Karter Ratliff for the 14-yard score with 7:39 left in the second. Bryant led 21-13.
Conway took a swing at a 37-yard field goal later in the quarter, but came up empty as the ball banged off the right upright, leaving the score unchanged.
Bryant would punt and fumble on its final two drives of the half.
Conway, though, would muster three more points before halftime as Mejia nailed a 27-yard boot to pull the score to 21-16 Bryant at the break.
Starting the second half with the ball, Bryant would not be able to add anything for two series. Instead another punt and Walker's second interception of the game resulted.
The Cats, though, would be forced to punt twice to start the half before Bryant added three more, this time a 34-yard field goal from senior Stephen Fuller. Bryant led 24-16 with 4:49 left in the third.
Both teams would exchange fumbles and a punt each before Omolo threw another interception for the Cats.
Bryant would turn the miscue into three more as Fuller hit another 34-yard field goal. Bryant led 27-16 with 7:51 left in the game.
Backup Motes entered the game at the start of the drive, his second appearance of the game. Walker would not return to action the rest of the contest.
Bryant's offense would not be much of a threat for the rest of the quarter. Luckily, Conway's wheels eventually fell off as their final four drives ended in two fumbles – both recovered by Tyler Mosely – an interception and a turnover on downs.
"I think Tyler Mosely (leading Saline County in tackles for loss) might be pound-for-pound one of the best football players in the state. He has proven that," James said. "We need to get better over there. Everyone remembers what you do in November.
"Defense wins championships and defense has a chance to show up every week. Offenses come and go, but defensively we are getting better every week. We just have to keep playing and do what we do."
Bryant would add a late score following the latter fumble as Martin punched it in from a yard out. Bryant led by the eventual 34-16 score with 2:12 remaining.
Walker finished his night 12 for 20 for 118 yards, two touchdowns and a pair of picks in the win. He also rushed nine times for 24 yards and a score.
Motes would finish 2 for 5 passing for 7 yards. He also rushed six times for 19 yards for the Hornets.
Gannaway led all Bryant rushers with 59 yards on 10 touches.
Through the air, Ratliff hauled in a game-high four catches for 44 yards.
Along with extending its winning streak, Bryant also extends its third-quarter scoreless streak as it is yet to allow a single point in the third quarter this season.
Bryant will have the bye before taking on the winner of Fort Smith Northside and Rogers in Round 2 the following week.
All playoff games will be held at Hornet Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. Nov. 18.