SPORTS >>Season's last play clinches playoffs
By RAY BENTON
Leader sports editor
Every single play matters. Let no one say differently lest he be reminded of what took place on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2007 at Russellville High School. That was the setting for perhaps the most exciting, bizarre and miraculous playoff qualification in football history.
That was the time and place at which the Panthers, who needed to win by at least 12 points to have a chance at a spot in the playoffs, beat the Cyclones 55-42, and didn’t lead by the necessary 12 points until the very last play of the game.
In a game that saw more second half twists and turns than Watkins-Glen, Cabot had four seconds and one snap to go five yards. The win was well in hand. The Panthers led 48-42 with the ball on RHS’s 5 with four seconds to go. But a six-point win would have been like a knife to the gut, especially after leading 42-21 with seven minutes left to play. Cabot had to win by 12, so they called a special play—96G. Special in that it’s the fullback up the middle, which Cabot runs about 30 times a game. It got just enough, as the line judge raised his hands skyward, awarding sophomore fullback Michael James a touchdown just as the horn sounded to signal the end of the game.
Senior halfback Jordan Car-lisle, who had a monster game of his own, saw the hole from the start, and carried out his fake to the outside with fists pumping into the air celebrating what he was certain would be a score.
“I saw it right off,” Carlisle said. “They had been stacking up trying to stop the fullback, but they didn’t that time. I saw that and I saw the hole open up and I knew he was going to score.”
It wasn’t quite as easy as all that. James did get hit before reaching the goal line, but as was the case for much of the night, his strength and the strength of the offensive line got him the yardage he needed after contact.
Wes Lamb’s extra point with no time left set the final margin. A few minutes later, news reached the field that Bryant had beaten Little Rock Central, and Cabot coach Mike Malham told his players they wouldn’t be turning in gear on Monday, and the celebration began.
The almost-miraculous ending had the head Panther asking the question after the game.
“Have you ever seen anything like that?” Malham said. “What did the final score end up being? I don’t think we’ve scored 55 points, maybe ever.”
It could have been even more, but seven fumbles, including three that were lost, thwarted a few drives. Russellville never came close to stopping Cabot’s offense, but the Cyclones had some offensive magic of their own.
Cabot’s defense played well through the third quarter, but the offense gave the high-powered Russellville team the ball too many times.
After the first turnover of the second half, Cabot’s defense held. After the second, on the very next drive, Russellville went 74 yards in two plays with the help of one Cabot penalty to make it 42-28 with 7:07 left in the game.
The Cyclones then covered an on-side kick and scored just three plays later to make it 42-35 with 6:32 left.
RHS kicked it away this time, and Cabot’s offense answered. The Panthers took three minutes and 11 seconds to go 70 yards, with Carlisle breaking loose for the final 44 and the touchdown. The extra point was no good, leaving the Panthers with a 13-point cushion.
Russellville, which for the entire game needed nothing more than for it to be third and long, answered right back, scoring with 1:40 remaining to make it a six-point game.
Cabot was now feeling the heat, needing not just to win, but win by 12 or more. An on-side kick was coming, so covering it would leave a short field.
Not only did Jake Davis cover, he caught it on the fly as the RHS hands team ran right by him. Davis, a defensive lineman and reserve fullback, ran it all the way to the 24 before being dragged down by the kicker with 1:37 left in the game.
Three plays gave Cabot first and goal at the 10, but from there things went from great hope to deep despair.
A bad pitch on first down made it second and goal from the 17.
Carlisle caught a throw-back pass for a 12-yard gain on second down, but was stopped after just one yard on third down. On fourth and goal from the 4, another pitch was fumbled and Russellville covered on the 5-yard line with 43 seconds left in the game. The Cyclones got it out to the 30 when Davis got a sack for a 9-yard loss. Russellville got 11 yards on second down to set up third and eight.
Up to that point, the Cyclones had converted several third downs in the second half, but not this time.
Senior defensive back Jordan Sperry spotted a trend in the Russellville package, saw the play develop and stepped in front of an out pass and raced down to the 5-yard line before being tackled by Humphrey with four seconds remaining.
“They were running the curl and the out every time on my side,” Sperry said. “I figured they would do it again. They threw the out and I just stepped up and made a play when my team needed. It’s all a team effort though. We did this together.”
The end of the first half was about as exciting as the end of a half can be, and turned out to be just a teaser for the end of the game.
Russellville scored first and third to take a 14-7 lead when Cabot took over the game and scored 14 straight. The Panthers took a 21-14 lead with just 2:07 remaining in the half, but that was plenty of time for Russellville to get back on track.
The Cyclones capped their last drive of the half with a 15-yard pass from Humphrey to Owens. The extra point tied the game at 21 apiece with 20 seconds to go.
Cabot returned the kickoff to the 25, and Malham dusted off an old playbook, took out an old play, modified it to fit new rules, and Cabot’s Spencer Neumann scored on the new fumble-rooskie end around, the modern version of the old fumble rooskie guard around, to send Cabot into the break with a 28-21 advantage.
“The guard is illegal now,” Malham said. “It has to be an eligible ball carrier to pick it up. We put Neumann out there at tight end and he ran it in for us.”
Cabot took the ball to start the second half and scored again. On third and one, Cabot faked the handoff and Wilson found tight end Blake Carter behind the Russellville defense for a 24-yard scoring strike. After a Russellville three and out, Cabot went up 42-21 when it drove 62 yards in just six plays with James finishing it off from one yard out.
The two teams combined for over 1,000 yards of offense. Russellville finished with 464 while Cabot totaled 564.
Humphrey completed 29 of 43 passes for 315 yards with five touchdowns and one interception. He also ran 12 times for 96 yards, but was sacked four times for negative 31 yards. His 65 rushing yards was still tops on the team. Owens caught 14 of those passes for 199 yards.
Cabot got 527 of its yards on the ground, led by James, who ran 28 times for 218 yards and four touchdowns.
Carlisle carried 18 times for 166 yards and two scores. Neumann was third with 75 yards on one carry and a score. Wesley Sowell carried seven times for 32 yards, and Wilson was three of four passing for 37 yards and a touchdown.
The win lifted the Panthers to 7-3 overall and earned them a first-round playoff game against Har-Ber High School next Friday in Springdale.