Tuesday, September 04, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> Panthers have to be better

Leader sports editor

The Catholic Rockets blast into Panther Stadium on Friday as a non conference opponent for the first time in six years. They’re bringing an inexperienced offense to face Cabot and the two teams are coming off different results in their openers.

Cabot played their opener last Tuesday and beat Jacksonville 28-0. Catholic opened with a resurgent Little Rock Central and lost 28-13.

Cabot coach Mike Malham still thinks his team will have to improve this week to get its second win.

“We got out of the first one with a win, but we have to get better because Catholic is probably going to be better than Jacksonville,” Malham said.

The Panthers played excellent defense against the Red Devils, especially in the second half. Cabot allowed just one first down in the final two quarters and preserved a shut out. The offense struggled early. Cabot went into halftime leading just 7-0, but better execution and Jacksonville turnovers turned it into a big win.

“Our offensive line I thought could have looked a little better,” Malham said of last Tuesday’s game. “We got better as the game went on so hopefully we can pick up where we left off and keep getting better.”

Catholic coach David Estes believes Cabot is better already than the team his Rockets played last year.

Estes’ team lost eight starters on offense to graduation, including standout quarterback Zach Conque. Conque accounted for 294 of Catholic’s 340 yards of offense in last year’s game against Cabot at War Memorial Stadium. He passed for 202 yards and ran for 92 more in a 28-6 Rocket victory.

Now the key players on offense are the running backs. D.J. Brown, Joseph Mariani and Jeffrey Rogers handle most of the running game, with Brown leading the way.

“I don’t know that we have that big-play ability we had last year,” Estes said. “What we’re about this year is controlling the line of scrimmage, controlling the clock and playing solid fundamental football.

“I look at Cabot’s game film this year and I see Cabot. They have more speed in their offensive backfield. Their line is a year older and a year better and they have a little more speed in the defensive backfield. We’re going to have to be a better team than we were last to beat them.”

The Rockets’ core of running backs is an impressive-looking group to the head Panther.

“Their running backs looked good against Central,” Malham said. “They get after it pretty good and they run hard. I thought we tackled pretty well against Jacksonville. They had some speed guys and we did a good job of getting them down when we got hold of them. Catholic is going to be different. Their backs are big and strong and we’re going to have to be physical.”

Malham was also pleased with his running backs, despite the lack of offensive numbers against Jacksonville.

“I thought our backs ran well,” Malham said. “Even when we didn’t get the blocking we need, we got some yards that our backs fought for and got on their own. Like I said, the blocking got better later in the game and we’re just going to keep trying to improve.”

Catholic’s week-one opponent has struggled in recent years. The Central Tigers didn’t win a game for two seasons before going 3-7 last year. Estes wasn’t pleased with his team’s overall performance, but did see something he thinks his young squad can build on.

“We had a lot of first-game nerves and we just have to get them calmed down and get them to run things like we run it in practice,” Estes said. “We did that one time last week and we went down and scored. We have a chance to become more consistent and if we can do that, we’ll be a better team than we were in our first game.”

Malham believes Catholic’s loss was more indicative of Central’s improvements than a drop-off by Catholic.

“Central has just gotten better,” Malham said. “Coach (Ellis) Register has the kids back out. Their numbers were down and now they’re back up. He has some talented kids on that football team. And that was a close game. Central scored right at the end to make it two touchdowns, but if they were to play 10 times, they might go 5-5.

“I think our game is close like that going into it. To me it’s a toss up.”