Wednesday, September 21, 2011

SPORTS >> Panthers hosting archrival

Leader sports editor

The Cabot Panthers have to begin to solve their defensive problems this week as the Conway Wampus Cats visit Panthers Stadium on Friday. Not only has Conway become Cabot’s biggest rivalry, it’s also the first week of conference play, and games count towards playoff berths and positions.

The Panthers are 1-2 overall and currently on a two-game losing streak. Despite the recent losses, Cabot has moved the football against everyone it has played.

The problems that have to fixed can be seen in the scores of the last two games. The Panthers have given up an average over 56 points per game in its last two. Allowing 64 to Pulaski Academy and 49 to Springdale Har-Ber.

Conway coach Clint Ashcraft is in his third year as head coach for the Wampus Cats and has done a good job of getting the program back to state prominence after inheriting a team on a two-year absence from the postseason.

Ashcraft installed the spread offense and went 9-1 in the regular-season last year, winning a share of the 7A Central conference championship and handing Cabot, who it shared the conference title with, its only league loss by a whopping 41-7 margin.

Conway opened this year with a down-to-the wire loss to Fort Smith Southside. Since then it has beaten Jonesboro and Rogers-Heritage without much difficulty.

This week Conway’s offense, which has averaged 38 points per game, lines up across from a Cabot defense that is young, inexperienced and has struggled badly in the last two weeks, especially in the secondary against the spread offense.

Ashcraft says the main key to his offense clicking the way it has this year is his quarterback Tyler Langly.

“When we’ve been able to give him time he’s done a really good job,” Ashcraft said. “It all starts with him. He’s really improved and he’s doing his job well right now.”

One spot where Cabot could alleviate some of the pressure on the youthful secondary is on the defensive front. The Panther line spent lots of time in Pulaski Academy’s backfield, it just couldn’t catch the fleet-footed quarterback Fredi Knighten. Langly is also pretty mobile, but he’s not the athlete that Knighten is.

Conway’s offensive line has been suspect at times this year, so it’s a concern for Ashcraft.

“Their down linemen have looked really good on film,” Ashcraft said of Cabot. The defensive line looks to me to be really good. I’ve seen some teams have had some success throwing the ball on them, but we’re going to have to really work on our pass protection.”

Conway has just one returning starter on the offensive line from last year’s squad, and it has been a work in progress.

“We knew coming in that it was going to be,” Ashcraft said. “It’s just a deal where we’re trying to get better every week, just improve weekly in our pass protection.”

Conway has been no slouch in the running game either. The Cats have a committee of good backs, but primarily relies on Corderius Irby and Corbin Alexander. Irby is a bruiser at 6-feet, 215 pounds. Alexander is smaller, but very quick and great acceleration.

“It’s a good changeup to have,” Ashcract said. “When you can go from a big bruiser to one that has a chance to outrun you if he catches seam, that’s a good one-two punch. It’s an advantage.”

Ashcraft has also seen Cabot’s offense on film, and is concerned, not just with how well it has executed, but with the scheme itself.

“I don’t care who they have out there, their scheme is going to make them tough,” Ashcraft said. “It’s a once-a-year deal and everything has to change a little bit in what you’re doing all week to prepare for it.”

Mimicking the Cabot offense for defensive preparation is difficult, according to Ashcraft.

“I don’t know if it’s possible to be honest with you,” Ashcraft said. “We try to do it, it’s just so different. We can tell them how to line up and what to do, but Cabot’s technique is so good, we can’t get guys to do it like that in a week.”

Cabot and Conway kickoff at 7 p.m. this Friday at Panther Stadium in Cabot.