Leader Blues

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

SPORTS>>Panther eye still on league title

By JASON KING
Leader sportswriter

A team expected to dominate in the 7A-Central Conference this year now finds itself in a genuine dogfight. Cabot currently shares the No. 2 spot in the league standings with Catholic High heading into Week 8 of the high school football season.

The Panthers (6-1, 3-1 conf.) will host Bryant (2-5, 2-2) this Friday at Panther Stadium with opening kickoff set for 7 p.m.

The Rockets handed Cabot its only loss of the season in a 35-28 shootout in Week 5, but fell themselves to North Little Rock in an upset last week for its first league loss. Russellville currently sits atop the league standings with a 4-0 record, while Catholic and Cabot share 3-1 records. Catholic and Russellville will also square off this Friday.

Bryant and North Little Rock both have 2-2 conference records currently, which puts five of the eight conference teams still in the hunt for a title with three weeks left in the regular season.

“We’ve got a chance to stay right behind Russellville and Catholic,” Panthers coach Mike Malham said. “We’ve got to win to stay afloat. Bryant is as good as anyone in the conference. They’ve lost a couple, but they’ve been by a combined six points. So that just goes to show that every week in this conference is going to be a dogfight.”

The Hornets evened out their conference record last week witha 34-7 blowout win over struggling Conway. Bryant controlled the contest by scoring four first-half touchdowns, while the Hornet defense held Conway to under 75 yards of total offense, keeping the Wampus Cats on their own side of the 50-yard line until the final five minutes.

Running back Chris Rycraw led the way for the Hornets with 61 yards on 22 carries, as well as four TD runs.

“They’ve allowed the fewest amount of points as anyone else in the conference,” Malham said. “They’re always hard nosed, especially on defense. This will be the toughest test to date for our offensive line.

“As far as their offense, they do a lot of different things. They can run Spread or I, and their running back averages over 100 yards a game.”

It will be the third spread opponent the Panthers have faced since beginning the conference schedule. Catholic’s spread attack juiced the Panther defense for a season-high 35 points. Definite improvement was shown two weeks ago in a wild win over North Little Rock, giving Malham confidence that their ability to defend the pass will be a key on Friday.

“We’re just trying to do what we do better,” Malham said. “The better athletes you have, the more effective your passing game will be. When we played Catholic, we had not seen that kind of attack. We got a lot more pressure on North Little Rock, so I think we can be pretty good defensively against Bryant. If it stays a low-scoring ballgame, we’ll be all right. If it’s high scoring, we could be in trouble.”

Last week’s win over Central was a time-of-possession masterpiece for Malham and the Panthers. Cabot had the ball for almost 32 minutes of the game, and held the Tigers to only 29 offensive plays the entire game. Cabot, meanwhile, ran a whopping 77.

“That’s something we’ve been doing for 28 years now,” Malham said. “Hopefully, it’s something we can do for 28 more years.

The longer we have it, the longer their offense sits on the sideline and grows old. If we can keep it long enough, maybe they’ll grow old and die – who knows.”

In addition to pounding it on the ground against the Tigers, the Panthers threw the ball effectively as well. Good blocking up front allowed junior quarterback Seth Bloomberg to complete 8 of 11 passes for 68 yards. Junior fullback Michael James had another 100-plus game, running 25 times for 104 yards and a pair of scores.

“We’ve gone pretty good at the line for the last few weeks,” Malham said. “They’ve blocked good, and we haven’t turned the ball over much, so that means we haven’t been helping out the other team.”