Tuesday, September 09, 2008

SPORTS>> Bears challenge: Offset Panther size

Leader sports editor

One cruised while barely raising a sweat. The other had to sweat out a 5-point win in a game that wasn’t decided until an interception in the final minute.

While Cabot head coach Mike Malham could find little wrong after the Panthers’ 41-15 breeze past Jacksonville last Friday, Sylvan Hills coach Jim Withrow acknowledged a sloppy, mistake-filled 25-20 win over Malvern.

“We made a lot of mistakes,” he said. “The defense had its moments and played real well. But we missed tackles, took bad angles and could have done a better job of tackling.”

But the Bears made the play that mattered most when Brian Hale picked off a Malvern pass in the end zone with 48 seconds left to preserve the win.

For Cabot, it was business as usual. The Panthers rolled up nearly 400 yards on the ground behind their big and deep offensive line. The big man for Cabot was Michael James, who pounded through the Red Devil defense for 187 yards and three touchdowns.

“We had our share of first-game mistakes,” Malham said. “Jacksonville has a young team, but they’ve got some talent. The good thing is we got to see some speed. Offensively, we did what we had to do and overall, the defense played pretty well and shut them down.”

On Friday night, Cabot will host the Bears at Panther Stadium in a game that was originally slated to be played at Sylvan Hills. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. It will be a tough, tough challenge for the somewhat-thin, somewhat-small Bears’ defense. The Bears will try to offset that size disadvantage with their quickness and speed up front. But Withrow warned that would carry them only so far against a Cabot front that is more than just big.

“Their footwork is unbelievable,” Withrow said of the Panther O-linemen. “And they get in those splits and that kind of negates all that speed advantage we may have.”

So how can Sylvan Hills hang with the deep and relentless Panthers, who are favored to win the 7A Central and are one of two or three teams who figure to vie for the overall state title? It will take solid fundamentals, Withrow said.

“We’ll try to make them run as many plays as possible,” he said, a strategy he probably shares with Malham. “When you have a chance to make a play, you have to make it. Obviously, we’ve got to tackle well and get some turnovers.

“And we’ve got to try to beat them to the punch, beat them to the ball.”

Boding well for the Bears was the return of defensive lineman Nick Brewer last week after missing most of the summer with injury. Withrow said Brewer played very well and made a lot of plays.

“He got up and down the field real well,” Withrow said.

Also on the injury front, Withrow is hoping linebacker Michael Robinson may get his release to play as early as Week 3 or possibly Week 4.

Cabot lost tight end Les McGregor, possibly for the season, with a dislocated hip, a loss that is eased somewhat by the incredible depth the Panthers enjoy.

“We’ve been playing three at those two tight end spots,” Malham said. “Blake Carter and Ben Wainwright will get more plays and we’ll switch Nick McTague from defensive end to rotate in at tight end some.”

Offensively, Withrow is hoping the Bears can get their passing game going after relying on the ground game against Malvern, the result of cramping among his receiving corps. They had plenty of success going that route, with Juliean Broner rushing for 107 yards and Lawrence Hodges going for 92. But the going will be a lot tougher against the rugged front seven of Cabot.

“We came out pretty balanced (against Malvern),” Withrow said. “(Quarterback) Jordan Spears completed a bunch of passes in the first quarter and was pretty accurate, too. But we’ve got to do a better job of throwing the ball.”

Malham took note of Broner’s and Hodge’s performances.

“(2007 All-State quarterback) Hunter Miller was a lot to lose,” he said. “But they’ve got some good running backs. Sylvan Hills will try to do a lot of different things but defensively, we’re going to gear up to stop the run and try to make them throw. We may be a little more aggressive in passing situations to put some pressure on (Spears).”