Tuesday, November 26, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Cabot not sure what to expect from Wildcats

Leader sports editor

The Cabot football team is one win away from playing its first state championship game in 13 years. Standing in the way is one of its nearest and biggest rivals, and perhaps the state’s most talent-rich team in North Little Rock.

These two teams met in week four of the season and in the first conference game of the year for both teams. Cabot ran all over North Little Rock at Charging Wildcat Stadium, and held off a late comeback to win the first meeting 48-32. Neither team has lost a game since that day, and North Little Rock appears to have gotten stronger as the season progressed.

The Wildcats, 10-2, enter Friday’s 7 p.m. matchup at Panther Stadium on an eight-game win streak. They have advanced to their rematch with Cabot with playoff wins over Rogers Heritage, 49-16, and Bryant, 28-7.

The win over Heritage tells how potent North Little Rock’s offense has become. Heritage lost 28-27 to Fayetteville in week six on a last-second kick-off return for a touchdown, then held seven-time 7A-West champion Bentonville to 13 points in a three-point loss.

“They haven’t even had a contest since we played them,” Cabot coach Mike Malham said of the Wildcats. “I think Bryant’s played them closest. Nobody has played them within 21 points. Central played them pretty good for three quarters, but it’s hard to keep that many athletes from making plays for a whole game. They’re the most talented team in the state.”

Indeed, North Little Rock beat Little Rock Central and Jonesboro by 24 points each, none of the other six opponents have been within 33, with two wins by more than 50 and one more than 60.

Cabot caught the Wildcats a week after they lost Arkansas Razorback commitment Juan Day for the season during a 35-14 win over Pine Bluff. The following week against Cabot, the Wildcats tried to throw the ball almost exclusively, and with plenty of success. Quarterback Heath Land completed 26 of 46 pass attempts for398 yards against the Panthers in September.

Since that loss, they have been a more run-oriented team. Senior Deion Tidwell moved from fullback to tailback to replace Day, and has been extremely effective. He has rushed for more than 1,300 yards in just eight games at tailback. He also lines up at quarterback and runs the spread option with big-play threats Fabian Lewis and K.J. Hill as the other options.

“The Tidwell kid has been running wild and of course they’ve got Hill on the outside,” Malham said. “They’ve got (Lewis) in there too and he hit a big play on us last time. We’re definitely going to have to protect against giving up the big play because that’s what they beat you with. Every play they’re going to give it to somebody who’s a threat to score.”

The run scheme by North Little Rock is welcomed by Malham, who believes run defense is a strength of his team. The statistics in the first meeting seemed to bear that out.

The Wildcats tried to run 17 times and gained only 47 yards. Tidwell had 12 carries for 22 yards. Lewis got the ball one time and went 34 yards, setting the Wildcats up with first and goal and leading to a touchdown that made it 13-12 midway through the second quarter.

“We’ve been pretty good against the run this year, but they’re definitely running it better than they were when they played us the first time,” Malham said.

North Little Rock tried just one rush the entire second half, a direct snap to Hill that he dropped, and the play resulted in -12 yards. In no game is the Wildcats’ strategy turnaround more evident than last week’s game, when Tidwell carried 42 times for 343 yards. Land completed 8 of 15 passes for 53 yards and an interception.

Cabot, 11-0, tried just four passes the entire game in September, gaining just eight yards. The Panthers ran 63 times for 450 yards, with fullback Zach Launius getting the bulk of the load with 38 carries for 221 yards and four touchdowns.

Launius has rushed for 1,558 yards and 25 touchdowns this season, and he’s had less than 15 carries in five of those games. He has carried it 185 times for an average of 8.4 yards per carry.

The Panthers have played the last three games without starting middle linebacker and leading tackler Jake Vaughn, but his replacement has played extremely well. Junior Jack Whisker had his best defensive game last week, recording eight tackles, including a sack, and got an interception. He also filled in at fullback in week three when Launius sat out with concussion symptoms, and carried 25 times for 98 yards.

“He’s been a valuable back up for us on both sides of the ball,” Malham said of Whisker.

Vaughn could return this week and if so, the Panthers will have everyone healthy for the semifinal matchup.

“You sort of expect a high-scoring game because it was high-scoring last time, but you just don’t know,” Malham said. “Hopefully we can slow them down a little bit and offensively not turn the ball over. We’ve had a couple of those in the last few games. Hopefully we don’t help them out. Turnovers will be big for either team. We feel like if we play good ball it’s going to come down to the fourth quarter. Hopefully we can keep that ball and keep those playmakers off the field and if we don’t give up the big play, we can take a pretty good year and make it a little better.”