Monday, September 23, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Panther interior wins the trenches

Leader sports editor

Conway coach Clint Ashcraft said earlier in the week that his team’s game at Cabot would be won in the trenches, and he was right. The Panthers’ offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage and quarterback Kason Kimbrell was nearly flawless running the option, leading Cabot to a 23-9 win over the Wampus Cats Friday at Panther Stadium.

It was Cabot’s first big test after two wins over winless teams. Conway entered the game with dominant victories over Jonesboro and Bryant, but couldn’t get into rhythm on offense and could not stop the Cabot dead T.

Cabot coach Mike Malham said earlier in the week that if his squad could compete with Conway, it could compete with anyone. He liked what he saw Friday.

“I’m pleased right now,” said Malham. “I’m sure we’ll go watch film and find a thousand mistakes. But I’m going to enjoy this one for a few minutes anyway.”

Cabot, 3-0, won despite committing four turnovers, but trailed late in the fourth quarter. Conway led 9-7 when Cabot took possession on its own 35-yard line with 7:35 left in the fourth quarter. The Panthers’ last two drives of the first half and first two drives of the second half ended in turnovers, but they held onto the ball on this one.

The result was an 11-play, 57-yard march that culminated in a 2-yard touchdown run by backup fullback Jack Whisker with 2:22 remaining in the game. Chris Henry added the two-point conversion to make it 15-7.

Conway had to pass and Cabot knew it. The Panthers got heavy pressure on Conway quarterback Breylin Smith. Defensive ends Brian Marshall and Brandon Allinder converged on Smith at the same time, bringing him down hard for a 13-yard loss on first down. Colby Ferguson knocked down the second-down pass while Jordan Burke disrupted throws on third and fourth down to give Cabot possession with 1:35 remaining in the game at the Conway 24.

The Wampus Cat defensive line was whipped by that point. Halfback Preston Jones bullied up the middle for 11 yards on first down. Whisker got the remaining 13 on the next play. He also added the two points to set the final margin with 1:19 left in the game.

Conway committed its first turnover on its last play when Burke picked off a deep pass at the 4-yard line and returned it 33 yards. Another 15 was tacked on to the end of the return after Burke was slung out of bounds by his facemask.

“It was a very physical game by both teams,” said Ashcraft. “I thought we were very physical the first two games. But Cabot was probably a little more physical than us tonight. They wore us down a little bit. They did a good job of moving the line of scrimmage and we couldn’t stop them in the fourth quarter.”

Conway, 2-1, had trouble stopping Cabot from the start. The Panthers had only seven drives. Three ended in touchdowns while the other four were turnovers.

The game’s opening drive was a thing of beauty to option offense lovers. The Panthers drove 80 yards in 16 plays for the score, chewing up seven minutes and 39 seconds of the clock. Cabot converted five third downs on the drive and scored on first and goal from the 8-yard line on an option keep around the right end by quarterback Kason Kimbrell. Christian Underwood’s extra point made it 7-0 with 4:21 left in the first quarter.

Conway answered Cabot’s initial touchdown drive with one of its own, going 60 yards in 10 plays, converting one huge fourth down in the red zone to keep the drive going.

On fourth and 3 from the Cabot 17, Smith hit receiver D.J. Johnson for a 14-yard gain. A late hit out of bounds tacked on another yard and a half, making it first and goal from the one-and-a-half yard line. Smith kept over right guard on the next play for the score with 16 seconds remaining in the second quarter.

The extra point snap was mishandled, leaving Cabot with a one-point lead.

The Panthers marched from their own 27 to the Conway 20 before Kimbrell fumbled it away after gaining 11 yards on a keeper left.

The Panther defense gave up one first down, but found an answer for tailback Karlil Johnson they didn’t have on the first drive. After gaining 38 yards on six carries on the Wampus Cats’ first drive, Johnson gained just 8 yards on four carries on the second one.

Facing third and 7, Cabot defensive lineman Keith Pledger burst through the line of scrimmage without his helmet, and made a shoestring tackle to sack Smith for a 13-yard loss and force a punt.

Cabot took over on its own 40 and drove to the Conway 19 in six plays before Dylan Thompson fumbled it away. But again the Cabot defense came up with a big stop, halting the Wampus Cats at the 3-yard line as time expired in the first half.

The Wampus Cats got it back to start the second half and marched 56 yards in 12 plays before junior kicker Matt Cummins booted a 40-yard field goal through the uprights to give Conway the lead with 6:38 left in the third quarter.

Cabot’s next two drives ended in the botched punt snap and an interception, but the defense forced a three-and-out and stopped Conway on downs on the possessions after the turnovers.

Cabot finished with 287 total yards to just 220 for Conway. Whisker carried 25 times for 98 yards while Kimbrell carried 14 times for 96. The Panthers rushed for 276 yards.
Karlil Johnson carried 18 times for 67 yards to lead Conway.      

The Panthers open conference play next week on the road at No. 1 ranked North Little Rock. The Charging Wildcats beat Pine Bluff 35-14 on Friday.