Anytime the Greenwood Bulldogs face the Pulaski Academy Bruins on the gridiron, two words come to mind – offensive shootout – as in the 2006 state championship classic when the ‘Dogs defeated the Bruins, 56-55. But the last time the two teams met before last week was in 2009 in the second round of the playoffs, a relatively low-scoring 21-14 win for P.A. Friday’s contest fell somewhere in the middle, a 33-23 victory for the hometown Bulldogs. It was also senior night for the Bulldogs with festivities held prior to kickoff.
The two teams have dominated their respective classifications over the past two decades, winning 10 state titles each. Greenwood was bumped up to Class 6A in 2012 and promptly went undefeated (14-0), winning its seventh state championship. After Pulaski Academy proved that it virtually owned Class 5A over the past few years, the Arkansas Activities Association booted the Bruins up to 6A this year, hoping to restore some competitive balance in 5A and 6A. Yet P.A. entered Friday’s game at Greenwood with an unblemished record, 8-0. The Bulldogs were 7-1, tied with the Bruins in league play.
The visitors came to Smith-Robinson Stadium with an impressive offensive resume, averaging 53 points and 637 yards per game. The home team wasn’t far behind, though, scoring an average of 46 points on 481 yards a game. Of course, Bulldogs’ fans know Head Coach Chris Young doesn’t believe in padding the stats or running up the score on an opponent, even though his team’s had ample opportunities to do so this season.
Since the Bruins were promoted to 6A and specifically the 6A West, Friday’s clash has drawn the attention of many football fans across the state. "It will be a special night in Greenwood," said Coach Young prior to the contest. "Hopefully, we can keep up our end of the bargain. We haven't seen a game with this kind of atmosphere in a long time. A lot of people have had this game circled and have been excited about it."
The third-year head coach then talked about the Bruins’ offensive strength and their unorthodox strategy when it comes to kickoffs, punts, and extra points. “They want to throw the ball deep," Young said. "They want to deep-ball you. They're [also] very unique. Number one, you have to field the onside kick. If you give them extra possessions, you're wasting a Friday night. Number two, you have to win the fourth-down battle. And number three, the two-point plays. They're not going to kick extra points; they're going for two. They kind of get in your head some."
The first half of the game didn’t follow the expected script at all, with both teams combining for just 28 points. The Bruins led 15-13 after 24 minutes as both defensive units overachieved in the first half, helped out by costly turnovers by both squads. Before the night was over, both teams also used two quarterbacks. The Bulldogs started senior Hunter Houston, but the second half belonged to freshman phenom Kane Archer after Houston went down with an injury. The Bruins started junior Kel Busby, but sophomore Brandon Cobb played a lot of minutes in the second half.
Not unexpectedly, both teams scored on their opening possessions, allowing the Bruins to take an early 8-6 advantage. The surprise came when it was still 8-6 with less than three minutes left in the opening half, as both defenses tightened up and kept the other side from scoring for about 13 minutes. Pulaski Academy then went up 15-6 at the 2:20 mark of the second quarter before the Bulldogs scored with eight seconds remaining to make it 15-13 at the intermission.
P.A.’s opening drive started at the Bruins’ 21-yard-line and required nine plays, two of which resulted in holding penalties, one on each team. Quarterback Kel Busby scored the touchdown on a nine-yard scamper with 9:46 showing on the clock. He also completed a pass for the two-point conversion and the 8-0 lead.
One of the key factors in the GHS win was the Bulldogs’ ability to handle the Bruins’ onside kicks, and the key player in that equation was senior Aiden Kennon, one of the team’s top receivers with dependable hands. It was Kennon who confidently and boldly fielded the visitors’ first onside attempt, returning it a short distance to the Bruins’ 44-yard-line, giving the home team excellent field position. Five plays later the Bulldogs were celebrating their first touchdown.
On second down, Hunter Houston threw to junior Noah Chaser for nine yards, then again for 20 yards to the P.A. 14-yard-line. Throughout the game the Bruins either double-teamed Greenwood receiver Grant Karnes or used their top defender against the ‘Dogs best receiver. But that opened up opportunities for other GHS receivers, including Chaser, who had several catches on the night.
After a loss to the 16, Houston passed to junior Peyton Presson, who was coming off a career game against Lake Hamilton a week earlier. Presson caught the ball near the 5-yard-line before spinning away from a defender and trotting into the end zone. At first, the Bulldogs lined up for a traditional extra point, but a penalty on the Bruins led to a two-point try. However, Hunter Houston’s keeper up the middle failed to reach the goal line, leaving the score at 8-6.
But the Bruins responded immediately, completing a long pass on first down to the GHS 33, made worse by a roughing the quarterback penalty that moved the ball to the Greenwood 18. The visitors then picked up a first down at the six and seemed assured of scoring a touchdown, until the ‘Dogs defense showed up with a critical goal line stand. An incomplete pass and a one-yard loss brought up third down before two more failed passes ended the possession.
The Bulldogs then marched from their own 7-yard-line to the Bruins’ seven before a penalty moved the ball back to the visitors’ 12. But Houston’s next pass was picked off inside the 10-yard-line, ending the GHS scoring threat. The Bruins then advanced to midfield before fumbling the ball away to Greenwood junior defensive linemen Brady Pettigrew. However, the turnover carousel continued moments later when Houston’s pass attempt was deflected by one P.A. defender into the arms of another for the interception.
But again the GHS defense came up big, preventing the visitors from earning a first down, giving the ball back to the home offense. After picking up a first down at the Bruins’ 34, the Bulldogs were stymied on their next four plays, giving the ball back to Pulaski Academy at the Bruins’ 25 with 4:28 left in the opening half.
The visitors then scored their second touchdown of the game after a brief six-play drive that included a long pass play of 49 yards to the GHS 10-yard-line. Running back Kenny Jordan scored from seven yards out and the Bruins chose to kick the extra point, making the score 15-6 with 2:20 remaining in the half. Just enough time for the Bulldogs to score.
Once again it was Aiden Kennon who competently fielded the expected onside kick, giving Greenwood the ball at the P.A. 45-yard-line. Facing third-and-11 from the 46, Houston’s pass to Peyton Presson was gathered in with a great diving effort by the junior receiver at the Bruins’ 11 for a huge first down. Jake Glover then ran four consecutive times, picking up another first down, putting the ball at the 2-yard-line. Hunter Houston then carried in for the score around the right side of the line. Bodey Steinfeldt booted the extra point, making the score 15-13 at the half.
The second half began with Aiden Kennon once again corralling a Bruins’ onside kick at the P.A. 46. Houston then completed four of five passes to the visitors’ 18-yard-line. Two plays later, the GHS quarterback was forced out of the pocket and gang tackled at the 17, drawing a flag on the defense for ripping off Houston’s helmet, moving the ball to the 8-yard-line. But the senior signal caller was shaken up on the very next play, visibly limping as he got to his feet. Though he stayed in the game and completed a pass to junior receiver L.J. Robins to the 7-yard-line, Houston would take only one more snap.
Throwing incomplete on the next play, he was buried by a Bruins’ defender and didn’t get up. Teammate Aiden Kennon tried to lift Houston to his feet, but he stayed down until medical assistance arrived from the sideline and helped him off the field, visibly shaken and wobbly on his feet. Facing fourth down, Coach Young sent Bodey Steinfeldt into the game to kick a 23-yard field goal, putting Greenwood on top for the first time, 16-15, with 9:51 left in the third quarter.
Brandon Cobb started at quarterback for P.A. in the second half, and led his teammates into GHS territory on the Bruins’ first possession of the new half. But a fourth down pass from the Greenwood 43 was popped up in the air by the receiver and into the waiting hands of GHS junior defensive back Landon Nelms, who returned it to the home 46-yard-line.
But it would be the Bruins who scored next after forcing Greenwood to punt to the P.A. 12-yard-line. Facing third-and-18 from the GHS 26, the visitors benefitted from a pass interference call on Greenwood, giving them new life. After picking up a first down at the 3-yard-line, the Bruins’ Kenny Jordan scored easily on a run up the middle. Jordan also scored on the two-point conversion, making the score 23-16 (1:51).
Greenwood’s next possession also resulted in a touchdown as the game moved into the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs drove 56 yards in nine plays after junior Kaleb Garner covered the onside kick at the GHS 44, which is also his uniform number. Freshman QB Kane Archer entered the game as Houston’s replacement and completed all three of his pass attempts on the drive. Jake Glover also ran three times before Grant Karnes lined up in the wildcat formation and ran twice for nine yards, reaching the 5-yard-line. Glover then squirmed his way out of a leg tackle, slipping away for the score. Steinfeldt’s kick tied the score at 23-all with 11:25 left to play.
Pulaski Academy’s next possession ended with a lost fumble at the visitors’ 43-yard-line. The ball was recovered by Kaleb Garner, and it helped lead to Greenwood’s final touchdown of the game after a brief six-play possession led by Kane Archer. The freshman opened the drive with a short pass to Aiden Kennon to the 40, before being forced to scramble on the next snap, picking up big yardage to the Bruins’ 22.
Glover then ran to the 19 and Archer passed to Noah Chaser at the 14. Facing fourth-and-two, Archer rolled right under pressure and passed to Grant Karnes in traffic at the 5-yard-line. The super sophomore receiver not only caught the ball, but made a terrific spin move to elude two defenders before waltzing into the end zone. Steinfeldt’s kick was good, and the Bulldogs had their biggest lead of the game at 30-23 with 8:15 remaining to play.
Smelling victory, the GHS defense kept up its fine work, stopping Pulaski Academy on a fourth down play at the Bruins’ 28, giving the Greenwood offense a golden opportunity to put the game away with another score. But the P.A. defense came through, blocking Bodey Steinfeldt’s field goal attempt with 4:14 left to play.
However, the Bruins’ own offensive philosophy worked against them on their next series, giving up the ball on downs at their own 19-yard-line, allowing the Bulldogs to have another field goal opportunity, and this time the kick was good from 27 yards out, pushing the GHS lead to 33-23 with less than three minutes remaining, just enough time for one last P.A. rally.
But it wasn’t in the cards, as the GHS defense came up big once again. With no timeouts left, the Bruins went to the air almost exclusively, trying to conserve time. But after reaching the GHS 17, the drive ended with a diving interception by Greenwood sophomore defensive back Isaiah Arrington at the 10-yard-line on the GHS sideline. Arhcer and company then took a knee three times to run out the clock on the 33-23 victory.
"Pulaski Academy is a classic program with a great history," Young said after the win. "It's been a long time since we last played them. We knew it was going to be a challenge. They have great talent and great coaching. It was going to take a perfect game from us to win this, and we didn't play perfect. [But] that's why you play football, to play games like that."
Asked about the performance of his defense, Young said, “The preparation of our [defensive] staff was just great. We didn’t play great [offensively]. We made mistakes and turned the ball over and had penalties. We gave up a couple big plays, but defensively the kids made plays. Coach [Jason] Gill and his staff worked so hard all week and made a great plan. I was really proud of our kids and our coaches. I’m fortunate because I have the best group of assistant coaches in America, and those guys did a great job.
“We’re going to celebrate,” he continued. “Our kids are special. They care about each other and have each other’s back. When things weren’t going great, they weren’t pointing fingers. We earned another home game in the playoffs as conference champs, but we’re not satisfied. We’ve got to go play a great Little Rock Christian team next week, and we’ve got some guys banged up and it’s going to be a challenge, but we’ll get ready to play a good game.”
Asked about Hunter Houston, Young said, “He’s going to be fine. It was just precautionary that we pulled him out. We’ve got the luxury of having Kane [Archer] back there. But Kane’s been banged up [too]. Those were the first snaps he’s taken in five weeks. But Kane was Kane, and he made plays and put some points on the board, and I was proud of him. But the defense led the way. The story needs to be about the defense because they took care of us. They shut down a good Pulaski Academy team. Coach Gill is as good as there is in the business and the kids played great. We got a couple guys (Braden Skaggs and Isaiah Arrington) back in the secondary, and defensively we were really solid.”
Asked about his offense, especially receivers Noah Chaser and Peyton Presson, Young said, “[Noah] came on early in the year, then got banged up a little bit. But when we moved Isaiah [Arrington] to cornerback, that brought Chaser back on the field, and I was really proud of him tonight. I thought he made some big plays in tough situations. That’s the thing about us offensively. If they want to double team Grant [Karnes] we can beat them with the other guys. We’re seeing our group of receivers really come on. Presson and Chaser had a big night.”
Having wrapped up the 6A West conference title and a first-round bye in the playoffs, the Bulldogs (8-1, 7-0) now look to close their regular season schedule with a ninth straight win, this one against the Warriors of Little Rock Christian (7-2, 5-2), in fourth place behind Greenwood, P.A. (8-1, 6-1), and Lake Hamilton (8-1, 6-1) in the league standings. All four teams will make the playoffs, along with Russellville (4-5, 4-4). Mountain Home (2-7, 2-5) will host Greenbrier (2-7, 1-6) next Friday and Van Buren (1-8, 1-6) will travel to winless Siloam Springs (0-9, 0-7) to determine the league’s sixth and final playoff berth. The only unbeaten team left in Class 6A is Little Rock Catholic, which dropped down from Class 7A to 6A this year.