As part of the countdown to the 10th Salt Bowl, BryantDaily.com will feature the game stories I wrote for the Bryant Times about the first nine. We’ll post new ones each day for the next nine days. Salt Bowl I was played on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2000 at Bryant Stadium. There were two stories.
By ROB PATRICK
Whatever people remember of the 2000 edition of the Bryant Hornets football team, there will always be at least one thing they can point to with pride. The very first result listed on the Salt Bowl trophy which will be handed out annually to the winner of the Bryant-Benton war will say this:
Bryant Hornets 44, Benton Panthers 17.
On every renewal of the Bowl presentation, hereafter, be it the fifth annual Salt Bowl, the 10th annual — shucks, the 50th annual — it will be the 2000 Hornets that will be especially invited back home for the game.
They won the first one.[more]
There are certainly other things for the team to be proud of. Yes, they missed a return trip to the playoffs and were disappointed at their 5-5 overall record, but they competed at a level — every loss a close one, every win was not — that certified the renaissance of the Hornets football program. They proved wrong anyone that thought the magical 1999 season was just a flash in the pan and quality football at Bryant could not be maintained.
The 2000 Hornets had a lot to prove under a lot of pressure and they may not have done it with a bang all season but they proved it nonetheless with the win over the arch-rival Panthers as a punctuation mark.
Chad Hooten of the renowned Hooten’s Arkansas Football magazine said it best during a halftime interview: "I still believe, when healthy, this Bryant team is as good as any in the AAAAA-South Conference."
And not only will the Benton win serve as punctuation for the 2000 season, it will serve as a springboard for 2001.
"It was a good win for the program," concurred Bryant head coach Daryl Patton, who has been involved as a player or coach in four of the five Bryant wins in the 27-game series with Benton. "It’s a good way to go into the off-season. There aren’t many teams that can win that last game so we’re tickled to death about it.
"To have a down year in our view, at 5-5 — yet, we were so close," Patton added. "We’re going to look back on this and see some games that we let slip away. What could have been, you know. But I’m proud of the kids for fighting and competing hard."
One of the most compelling individual aspects of the game was the performance of senior quarterback Jeramie Wooten. In each of the past two seasons, Bryant quarterbacks had set records right and left, first Tadd Farmer then Derik McCoy. Wooten’s season was as much a rollercoaster as the team’s. One game, he was even replaced as the starter. Said to be not tall enough, not big enough, not strong enough, he nevertheless kept his head up, said the right things and continued to compete.
Still, it appeared there would be no record-book for Wooten.
Until the Benton game.
The senior went out in a blaze of glory, passing for 508 yards and five touchdowns and completing 32 of 42 passes including, at one point, 15 in succession.
For that, he was awarded the KCDI/Press Box Bryant Hornets Offensive Player of the Game award which, along with a Defensive Player of the Game award, will be an annual part of the Salt Bowl (thanks, in large part, to press box regulars Jim Lagrone, Jim Hudman and Fred Foster.)
In fact, Wooten’s numbers might have been even greater, had he not had three completions negated by penalties.
And who were Wooten’s top receivers? It was the Brown boys, reunited. Luke Brown, on the injured list since suffering a dislocated collar bone Sept. 29 at Pine Bluff, rejoined fellow senior Matt Brown to combine for 17 receptions for a whopping 230 yards. Luke, a running back much of his career, made nine catches as a wide receiver for 103 yards and quipped to one of the Bryant assistant coaches after the game, "Y’all were wasting me at fullback." Matt, the school’s all-time leading receiver, added eight catches and 127 yards to his career totals.
But Patton wanted to talk about his defense after the game which, after the previous game at Texarkana, was a bit singed about some strategy they, at first, didn’t understand. Trailing 14-13 and with Texarkana’s offense eating up the last remains of the game clock as well as Bryant timeouts, the Hornets defense was told to allow Texarkana to score once they got deep into Bryant territory.
Understandably, the defense took that as an affront to their abilities. Later, those hard feelings were salved somewhat when the strategy was explained, that in order for the offense to have any time for a comeback it needed the ball and a 7 or 8 point deficit with possession and a chance to tie was no worse than a one-point difference without possession and little chance to win.
In light of that, the Hornets felt like they had something to prove against Benton. And, though the Panthers were able to accumulate 256 yards of offense, Bryant forced three turnovers and pitched a shutout for three quarters.
Junior linebacker Jason Rose, one of several reasons for optimism about next year’s defense, was awarded the Defensive Player of the Game plaque for getting in on 13 tackles including five unassisted and recovering two of the fumbles.
"A lot of times, the defense is kind of the second child," Patton said. "They don’t get all the attention. But our defense for the last two years, they have given us a chance to win week in and week out. And, if you look at Bryant football the last two years, our defense is the biggest thing that’s changed.
"(Against Benton), we played well," Patton added. "We bent at times but we didn’t break. It was going to be tough for Benton to score 21 points on us."
Of the offense, Patton said, "Our offensive line, week in, week out, I’ve probably been guilty of pointing the finger at them sometimes when we can’t run the football. But Coach (Paul) Calley did a great job of getting the line ready to play. We took what (Benton) was giving us which was the pass and they did an excellent, excellent job of pass protection."
There again, there’s room for optimism about the offensive front. Against Benton Thursday, only one senior, three-year starter Brad Roberts, drew a starting assignment.
So, the 2000 seniors pass the torch, still held high and burning brightly, just the second group to be a part of consecutive wins over the rival Panthers and just the second group to lead Bryant teams to consecutive non-losing campaigns since the mid-60’s.
For the juniors, they can now become the first class to sweep three games from Benton with a Salt Bowl II win next year, and the first since 1967 to be a part of three straight years with an even or better record.