Saturday, December 14, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Tigers air it out, deflate Panthers

Leader sports editor

The clouds never broke and the rain never stopped pouring at War Memorial Stadium on Friday, a fitting setting for a class 7A championship game that turned into a battle to see which team would break first. It took an entire half for one team to flinch, and that team was Cabot.

The Bentonville Tigers took advantage of two Cabot fumbles and a secondary that continuously gave up deep passes en route to a 39-28 victory, earning BHS its fourth state championship and depriving Cabot of its fourth.

The two teams slugged it out for a half, with the Panthers taking a 14-13 lead into intermission, but the way the first half ended turned out to be a preview of the final two quarters.

Cabot, 12-1, scored with 54 seconds left in the second quarter to take a 14-10 lead, but Bentonville, 11-2, went deep for the first time in the game on the ensuing possession, and connected for 52 yards from quarterback Kasey Ford to receiver Jimmie Jackson to the Cabot 10-yard line with 22 seconds remaining.

Cabot defensive end Brian Marshall sacked Ford on the next play, forcing the Tigers to settle for a field goal, but the play gave the Tigers the confidence to come out passing in the second half despite the dreadful conditions.

“We wanted to throw the ball from the start, but we thought with the conditions we might ought to keep it conservative,” said Bentonville coach Barry Lunney. “But that just wasn’t getting us where we needed to be. So we decided we were just going to throw the ball regardless of the conditions. Kasey is going to be a great quarterback. One thing that helps him is he has huge hands, so he can still get a good grip on that ball. He made some great throws tonight.”

The Tigers got the ball to start the second half and wasted little time going over the top again. On the second play of the third quarter, Ford found Cody Scroggins 41 yards downfield to the Panther 20-yard line.

It took six plays to score from there, but the Tigers just got it in on fourth and 1 when junior Hekili Keliiliki plowed forward after running into the back of his linemen for the touchdown.

Still, the Panthers only trailed 20-14, and the game had gone back and forth since the Tigers kicked a field goal for the first score of the game with 38 seconds left in the third quarter.

But Cabot would never lead again, thanks to fumbles on back-to-back possessions.

The Panthers gave the ball up on downs after a 44-yard drive to start the game, and went three and out on their second possession. From that point, they scored on every drive on which they didn’t fumble.

After the Tigers’ touchdown in the third quarter, Cabot drove 33 yards into Bentonville territory on seven carries by fullback Zach Launius. The ball came loose during a scrum after a 3-yard gain, and Bentonville’s Tyler Nichols came out of the pile with the ball.

Bentonville went 48 yards in seven plays, converting a third down and 12 from the 19-yard line into a 19-yard touchdown pass from Ford to Scroggins with 3:31 left in the third quarter. The Tigers faked the extra point and attempted to convert for two, but were stopped, leaving the score 26-14.

Cabot returned the kickoff to the 29-yard line, then drove 51 yards before Launius fumbled again at the 19-yard line. Nichols again came out of the pile with the ball while Launius argued that he was down before being stripped of the ball.

The officials took a long time to signal Bentonville’s ball, and the replay on the stadium jumbotron seemed to verify Launius’ claim, but Bentonville took over on its own 22, and the Cabot defense continued to have no answer for the Tiger passing attack.

After a 3-yard run, Scroggins made a 19-yard catch to the 44. Three more running plays gained 12 yards before another big scoring strike from Ford to Jackson.

Jackson was running a post route the whole way, but a simple shoulder pump by Ford was enough to make Cabot cornerback Jordan Burke bite hard and allow Jackson to run past him. Jackson made the catch with no defender within 15 yards for an easy six with 8:43 left in the game.

Cabot blocked the extra point, leaving the score 32-14.

The Panthers scored easily on their next drive, starting with a 52-yard run by halfback Chris Henry that set the Panthers up at the Bentonville 28-yard line. Dylan Thompson then went 12 yards and Launius scored his second touchdown five plays later with 6:17 remaining.

Trevor Reed’s extra point made it 32-21. But Cabot couldn’t stop the Tigers.

The Panther defense forced three third downs of 4 yards or more, but the Tigers converted each time. They failed to convert on their fourth third down, but went for it on fourth and 2 from the Cabot 18, and Keliiliki got all 18 on a run off right tackle for a 39-21 lead with 1:47 remaining in the game.

Cabot’s final drive went 72 yards in eight plays, and Launius broke 2,000 yards rushing for the season on the last carry of his career, a 5-yard run for his third touchdown that gave him 179 for the game and 2,001 yards this season. Launius fell just short of the school record, but became just the second player in school history to top the 2,000-yard mark.

“We had a good season running the ball,” said Cabot coach Mike Malham. “We moved the ball all year long. We moved it this game except for those two drives where we fumbled it. That turned out to be the difference. If we go in and score on those two drives it’s a different looking game.”

Launius also threw a touchdown pass in the first half, a half in which every touchdown drive involved some form of trick play. Cabot’s opening touchdown came on a fullback pass from Launius to Henry for 14 yards on third and 10.

That gave Cabot a 7-3 lead with 7:05 left in the first half. Bentonville then scored on a rollout right, throwback left to tight end Jack Kraus. The 6-foot-6, 234-pound Razorback signee caught the ball at the 3-yard line, and had only 5-8, 150-pound sophomore Holdyn Barnes to beat. Barnes went low and hit Kraus thigh-high at the 1, but couldn’t keep him out of the end zone.

Cabot’s last touchdown of the first half was set up by a common play, but still caught Bentonville off guard because the Tigers were not expecting a fade pass to the end zone by the run-oriented Panthers.

Quarterback Kason Kim-brell threw a perfect pass to receiver Jake Ferguson, who made a phenomenal catch a yard deep in the end zone, but the official ruled he went out of bounds at the 1. The call was wrong, but academic. Launius went in untouched on the very next play to put the Panthers ahead 14-10 with 54 seconds on the clock.

Bentonville finished with 431 total yards. Ford completed 11 of 18 pass attempts for 265 yards and three touchdowns. Jackson and Scroggins each caught four passes. Jackson totaled 114 yards and Scroggins 110. Tailback Dylan Smith carried 22 times for 107 yards.

Cabot gained 418 yards, with 332 coming on the ground. Launius carried 39 times for 179 yards and three touchdowns, and threw one pass for 14 yards and a score. Kimbrell completed 6 of 7 pass attempts for 72 yards. Henry had 127 total yards, carrying eight times for 76 yards and catching three passes for 51 yards and a score.