It seems like a hundred years ago now, but the 2018 Greenwood Bulldogs opened their season with a disappointing 31-16 loss at Fort Smith Northside. The Grizzlies were pretty good last year, reaching the semi-finals of the 7A playoffs. Of course, those Bulldogs didn’t lose again and won their second straight 6A state title.
Some of those same players, from both teams, were on the field this past Friday night as the Northsiders came to Smith-Robinson Stadium to face the 2019 Bulldogs in their opener. The Bears won their season debut a week earlier at Rogers Heritage, 36-7. But after a closely contested first half, Greenwood dominated the third quarter on their way to an impressive 38-10 victory.
As with all season openers, mistakes were made and improvement is needed, but the Bulldogs generally executed well in all facets – offense, defense, and the kicking game. After the win, GHS Head Coach Rick Jones spoke to members of the media on the field.
“It was a Bulldog weather type of night, and I was proud of the way our kids played the second half,” said Jones. “I was proud of the way our defense took the ball away from [Northside] and how [our] offense was able to capitalize. We think [the Grizzlies] are a really good football team and I didn’t see anything tonight that made me change my mind.”
Jones was referring to the hot, muggy conditions with the temperature hovering around 90 degrees at kickoff. It was still 85 at halftime, and both sidelines made sure their players were well-hydrated, also making ample use of backups to give the starters a break. Jones pointed out that the Bulldogs used seven wide receivers in the game.
Greenwood is known for its well-conditioned athletes who annually take part in the FASDOGS program each July. Jones constantly stresses the importance of winning the second half of every game by playing fast and wearing down the opposition, something the Bulldogs have done successfully since the Coach arrived in 2004.
Friday’s game opened with Greenwood winning the coin toss and deferring to the second half, putting the visitors on offense to start the contest from their own 22 after a short kick return. But the GHS defense yielded just five yards and forced a punt to the Bulldogs’ 41.
Seven plays later – all passes – Greenwood took the lead on a 28-yard toss from senior quarterback Jace Presley to Hunter Wilkinson over the middle. The junior running back got a step on the defender and made a nice leaping two-handed catch near the 15-yard-line, carrying in for the score. The extra point was good by senior kicker Jackson Stewart.
Leading 7-0 just over three minutes into the game, the Greenwood defense continued its early dominance by forcing another Northside punt. But the Grizzly defense returned the favor moments later, forcing Stewart to kick the ball away for the Bulldogs. Punters for both teams had a very good night.
But the GHS defense produced the first of several takeaways on Northiside’s third offensive series. Junior defensive back Jayden Jasna picked off an enemy pass at the visitor’s 42-yard-line before a penalty for excessive celebration moved the ball across midfield to the GHS 43.
From there Presley & Company needed just three plays to score again. Facing third down from the 45, Presley spun away from defensive pressure, buying some time, then found junior Caden Brown in front of the Northside bench. Making the catch at midfield, Brown also used a nifty spin move to avoid a tackler and found daylight down the sideline all the way to the end zone. But the kick by Stewart sailed left of the uprights.
Trailing 13-0 with 3:44 remaining in the first quarter, the Grizzlies were staring at a potential blowout loss and needed to respond with some points of their own, and were aided in their efforts by a long kick return of 50 yards to the GHS 49. Ten plays later Northside kicker Dagon Moore booted a 42-yard field goal to get the visitors on the scoreboard.
Still, the GHS defense claimed a huge moral victory after the Grizzlies reached the 2-yard-line but failed to penetrate the end zone. A huge penalty for intentional grounding also hurt Northside, forcing the long kick in the opening minute of the second period.
The Bulldogs did not score again in the first half as the Grizzlies fought hard to keep the game close. After a long punt return was nullified by a flag for an illegal block, Northside Head Coach Mike Falleur expressed his displeasure with the officals and drew another penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Yet his antics seemed to fire up his team, which quickly marched down the field for its first and only touchdown of the game.
Starting from its own 14 after the penalty, Northside needed only seven plays, all on the ground, to drive 86 yards to the end zone. Quarterback Dreyden Norwood did much of the work himself, keeping the ball on the last four snaps for 50 yards, including the seven-yard TD run. Moore’s kick cut the GHS lead to 13-10 with 6:12 showing on the clock.
But neither team scored again in the time remaining and retired to their respective dressing rooms, the outcome of the game still very much in question. But the Bulldogs emerged from their halftime meeting a different team.
Receiving the opening kick of the third quarter, the ‘Dogs got a nice 27-yard return from Jayden Jasna to the 30. The offense then earned a first down at the 40, but later suffered a rare offensive pass interference penalty that pushed them back to their own 25, stifling the possession.
Later, a fourth down punt by Stewart sailed deep into Northside territory and was fumbled by the Grizzlies, resulting in a wild scramble in the end zone. After a meeting by the officials, Northside was given the ball at their two-yard-line. But on their first snap the ball came loose again and this time the Bulldogs came up with it for a defensive touchdown.
Senior defensive back Logan Workman came away with the football, and once again the home team was flagged for excessive celebration. The 15-yard penalty was assessed on the ensuing kickoff, after Stewart added the PAT.
Greenwood then led 20-10 with 9:01 left in the third quarter, but the Bulldogs were far from done. After the defense forced another Grizzlies’ punt, Presley marched the offense 69 yards to the Northside 18 before a quarterback sack put the ball at the 25. Facing fourth down, Stewart booted a 41-yard kick through the uprights for a 23-10 GHS lead.
Sealing their doom, the Bears coughed up the football again on their next offensive snap after the kickoff. Greenwood sophomore defensive lineman Adam Gifford recovered the fumble at the Northside 38, setting up the Bulldogs for their next score nine plays later.
From the visitor’s 14, senior running back Aaron Ligon hauled in a short pass from Presley and weaved his way into the end zone for the score. Ahead 29-10 with 19 seconds left in the period, Coach Jones opted for a two-point conversion, hoping to push the lead to 21 points. Presley then completed a short pass to junior receiver Jase Strozier at the goal line for the score.
With the wind taken out of their sails, the Grizzlies were forced to punt once again, this time giving Greenwood the ball at their own 20 early in the fourth quarter. Wanting to run the clock, the Bulldogs kept the ball on the ground on nine of their next 12 plays, with Wilkinson, Ligon, and junior Caden Franks doing most of the damage, a few yards at a time.
Presley completed two of three pass attempts, the first of which was a 12-yard toss to junior receiver Peyton Carter at the Northside 40. His final effort came on fourth-and-seven at the 24, another pass to Carter, this time in the end zone for a touchdown. Stewart’s extra point kick accounted for the final score of 38-10.
“I thought Jace [Presley] played awesome for his first rodeo,” said Jones of his starting quarterback. “I thought he was really good. He made good decisions with the ball. He played within himself and did what he was supposed to do. He didn’t take many chances. I thought for his first time out it was a pretty clean game.”
The Head Bulldog also talked about the three turnovers that played such a large role in the outcome of the game and how his offense and defense worked so well together.
“That’s what teamwork is all about,” said Jones. “You get the turnover and you go score,” then repeated himself for emphasis. “That’s what I was so proud of, that we were able to capitalize on the turnovers. [Our] defensive guys were working hard. [Northside’s] quarterback was fast and hard to tackle, and their running back ran hard. They are a scary football team because they are really fast.
“Our defense really did a good job,” he added. “I wish we would have tackled better, especially in the first half. But in the second half we’re still swarming the football and playing with a great attitude. I was really proud of the way they played in the second half especially.”
Jones also lauded kicker Jackson Stewart, despite missing an extra point in the first half. The senior made up for it with a long 41-yard field goal, carrying on the tradition of fine kickers at Greenwood. Stewart is wearing the same #17 worn by state record-holder Grant Ennis, who graduated last spring as Arkansas’ all-time leading scorer.
“That [field goal] was big. It was so important,” said the coach. “Stewart is one of those guys who has waited his turn and he’s ready. I was proud of him, and he punted the ball awesome. He’s a great kid and he deserves good things to happen to him. I’m happy for him.”
The coach also spoke of his team’s depth in less-than-ideal playing conditions. “We got to play a lot of kids tonight,” he said. “I was proud of the way [they] filled in. We played seven different wide receivers while the game was still on the line. I was proud of the kids going in.” Greenwood’s reserves played most of the last 7½ minutes as well.
“That’s what we talked about at halftime,” explained Jones. “I wanted [us] to go out and be dominant. It’s Bulldog weather and I want to wear people down in the second half.”
The coach also talked about the new rule this season changing the 25-second play clock to 40 seconds. For teams that want to play slow and milk the clock, the change is ideal. But Jones believes it will also benefit teams like Greenwood that want to play fast.
“It will be great for both,” said Jones, “because the refs are not spending as much time standing over the ball. They are getting it marked and getting out of there and [we] can snap it any time after that.”
Finally, the coach addressed next week’s opponent, Fort Smith Southside, which lost 37-13 at home to a very good Bentonville-West team on Friday night. The Mavericks visit Smith-Robinson Stadium with the hopes of putting an end to Greenwood’s seven-game winning streak over their Sebastian County rival.
“There’s no doubt it’s a [big game],” said Jones. “It will be a great battle. They are big and physical. We saw them play a couple weeks ago, and we’re looking forward to it.” Game time is set for 7 p.m. next Friday.