Friday, November 07, 2008

SPORTS>> Panthers grind way to title

Leader sportswriter

Russellville could have definitely used more than the 3:32 of possession time it was limited to in the second half.

Cabot held on to the ball for the final 9:39 of the game to clinch the 7A-Central Conference championship with a 12-7 win over the Cyclones on Friday night at Panther Stadium. It was Cabot’s first outright conference championship since 2003.

Cabot earned a bye in the first round of the 7A state playoffs, and will face the winner of next week’s North Little Rock-Springdale Har-ber game.

Russellville answered the only Cabot score of the second half with a lightning quick drive that went 78 yards in five plays to start the fourth quarter, but it was the last time the Cyclones saw the ball. The Panthers ate up the remainder of time with a 19-play drive, which included a pair of fourth-down conversions by junior fullback Michael James along the way.

“They had a good defense,” Cabot coach Mike Malham said. “In fact, there were two good defenses out there tonight. We did what we do. We didn’t break anything big, but we just nickel-and-dimed them. I don’t know how many times we had to go on fourth down, but we didn’t want to give it to them because it didn’t take long for them to get right back in the ballgame.”

James’ duty went well beyond work horse-load on Friday, carrying the ball 38 times for 168 yards and both Panther touchdowns.

Panther football player John Fortner was honored at the start of the game with a video montage and moment of silence.

Fortner was killed early last Saturday morning in a car accident shortly after the Panthers returned from their road trip to Van Buren.

The student body released 600 red balloons in his honor.

“It was a tough game – it was emotional,” said Cabot quarterback Seth Bloomberg. “All week it’s been tough. John Fortner – God bless his family. They’re going through a tough time right now. It was an important game. We played tough, played through it.”

No one played tougher than James on the night, perhaps with the exception of the offensive line that provided he and halfback Chris Bayles with a number of huge gaps.

Those gaps proved critical on the winning drive. The Panthers took possession at their own 38-yard line at the 4:56 mark of the third quarter, and moved methodically down field.

The biggest run of the drive was a 28-yard scamper by junior Matt Bayles that moved the ball to the Cyclone 17.

James converted four fourth-down plays in the second half. The biggest one came on the opening play of the fourth quarter.

With the Panthers facing fourth and goal from less than a foot away from the goal line, he bulled his way in for his 21st touchdown of the season. Chris Bayles tried to run in the two-point conversion on an inside draw from Bloomberg, but the Cyclone defense stopped him at the line and Cabot led 12-0.

“That’s what you expect when you have two teams playing for a championship,” Malham said. “It was a good game. I’m just proud to be on the right side of that 12-7 score.”

Cabot could never pull away, but it did own the clock for the duration. Russellville’s first drive of the game was a three-and-out, but a booming 67-yard punt pinned the Panthers back at their own 9-yard line.

Though the Panthers were able to move the ball past midfield, they stalled, and a fake punt was sniffed out by Russellville. But once again the Cyclones couldn’t move and Cabot took over at its own 41 and started its first scoring drive of the night.

It wasn’t a highlight-reel drive, with a 21-yard gain by James on the second play of the drive being the only gain of more than seven yards the entire way. The drive was in jeopardy with a fourth-and-one at the Russellville 14, but an offside penalty gave Cabot a free trip inside the 10 and a fresh set of downs.

The Panthers took advantage. Two plays later, James went over from three yards at the 11:27 mark of the second quarter.

Logan Spry’s extra-point attempt was blocked to leave the score 6-0.

Malham was happy with the production of his offensive interior.

“They’ve been playing better and better each week,” Malham said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to move the ball up and down the field. The stats don’t really matter, I’m just glad to see that 12-7 up there in favor of Cabot.”

The Cyclones finally put their Spread to work on the possession following Cabot’s second score. Wide receiver Kenneth Golden pulled down three catches during the drive, his third one good for a 5-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Barrett Hughes with 9:39 remaining. Zach Hocker, who barely missed a 56-yard field goal attempt toward the end of the first half, added the extra-point to make it a five-point game.

“That’s exactly what we needed,” Bloomberg said of Cabot’s performance, especially on critical fourth-down plays. “We just needed to do our jobs, and just do what we’re told to in practice, and that’s what we did.”

Bloomberg added 43 yards passing on 4 of 6 attempts and carried four times for an additional 41 yards. The Panthers had 341 yards of total offense, 18 first downs. For Russellville, Hughes was 15 of 22 passing for 91 yards and a touchdown. The Cyclones had 113 yards of total offense, with eight first downs and one turnover — an interception by Cabot defensive back Justin Wortman midway through the first half.