Saturday, November 07, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Panthers 10-0 East champs

Leader sports editor

SEARCY – An extremely efficient offense and a vastly improved defensive performance led to a 41-10 Cabot victory Friday over the Searcy Lions. The Cabot offense scored on each of its first six possessions while the defense overcame a slow start to dominate the last three quarters of play, leading to the Panthers’ 10th-straight victory, a perfect regular season and an outright 7A/6A-East Conference championship.

“That was one of the goals, to finish 10-0,” said Cabot coach Mike Malham. “Now we can take a deep breath, rest a little bit and hopefully get a few people well.”

The Panthers, who earned a bye next week in the first round of the Class 7A state playoffs, won Friday’s game without two starting defensive linemen, a starting linebacker and a starting offensive lineman.

Cabot’s banged up defense gave up 540 yards and 53 points in last week’s wild, nine-point win over Jonesboro. It looked like Friday’s game might shake out the same way early on. Searcy took the opening kickoff and drove 75 yards in 12 plays, overcoming a personal foul penalty and executing four plays of 12 yards or more.

Cabot almost stopped the drive when it forced quarterback Andrew Neaville to scramble to his right. He found no one open in that direction, but threw across the field to Luke Dixon for the score.

After that, Searcy (6-4, 3-4) managed just 115 yards and three points the rest of the half, and just 35 total yards in the second half.

“Searcy moved the ball on us in that first half,” Malham said. “The second half we came out and did a lot better job. Obviously, if you want to win a championship you have to play good defense. You can’t outscore everybody.

“We did a good job tonight. We got a conference championship, a perfect regular season. Now we see if we can look to bigger and better things.”

Cabot’s first possession started on its own 38. On third and 3 from the 45, Panther quarterback Jarrod Barnes broke loose for 45 yards to the Searcy 10. Three plays gained 9 yards, and fullback Kolton Eads punched it in on fourth down to tie the game with 4:18 left in the first quarter.

The Lions converted on third and 6 and fourth and 3 on their next drive. But on the third set of downs, a holding penalty moved them back 13 yards on first down. Three incomplete passes followed, and Searcy punted from midfield.

Cabot started on its own 15, and went 85 yards in 15 plays for the score. The drive started with a minute left in the first quarter, and Eads again scored from 1 yard out with 6:43 remaining in the half.

Camron Washington returned the ensuing kickoff 44 yards to the Searcy 45. Dixon then took the handoff 46 yards up the middle to the Cabot 9-yard line. The Panther defense stiffened up, pushing Searcy back 2 yards and forcing a 28-yard field goal by Kolton Howe to make it 14-10 with 5:10 left in the half.

The Lions tried an onside kick and got a perfect high bounce over Cabot’s initial fielder, but Colin Thompson secured the loose ball for the Panthers at the Cabot 47.

On the second play, sophomore John Weins took an end around handoff 21 yards to the Searcy 30. Runs by Barnes and fullback Alex Roberts set up first down at the 16.

Facing fourth and 6 from the 12, Cabot scored much like Searcy did in the first quarter. Barnes scrambled right after a high snap, and then found Weins back across the field for the 12-yard touchdown pass. Caleb Shulte’s extra point made it 21-10 with 1:46 left in the half.

Searcy drove to the Cabot 25 on the next possession, but Howe’s 42-yard field goal attempt at the buzzer sailed left.

Cabot took the opening possession of the second half 65 yards in 10 plays. Halfback Jess Reed had a 15-yard gain on third and 4, and halfback Austin Morse got the last 22 on a counter with 7:37 on the clock. Shulte missed the extra point.

Cabot senior Drew Stout sacked Neaville for an 11-yard loss on second and 8 of the next possession. After an incomplete pass, Searcy went for it on fourth and 19 from its own 26. Neaville found Dixon 13 yards downfield, but safety Holdyn Barnes stopped him right there, giving Cabot the ball at the Searcy 39.

After one first down, halfback Adam Flores carried 20 yards to the 8-yard line. Barnes got the rest on an option keep left for a 34-10 lead with 2:43 left in the third.

Searcy lost a yard and went three-and-out on its possession, punting from its own 9-yard line and giving Cabot excellent field position at the Lion 36.

Eads carried for 11 yards on the last play of the third quarter. On the second play of the fourth period, Roberts got the final 10, dragging two Searcy defenders the last 5 yards into the end zone. Shulte’s PAT set the final margin with 11:15 remaining in the game.