Saturday, November 05, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Big breaks lift NLR over Panthers

By RAY BENTONLeader sports editor

The Cabot Panthers dominated the first half and took a 21-3 lead into the locker room against the No. 1 ranked team in the state, but a disastrous second half led to a 28-27 loss at North Little Rock High School on Friday.

In a half where anything that could go wrong did for Cabot, even North Little Rock’s mistakes turned into good fortune, and ultimately led to its victory.

When the Charging Wildcats scored the go-ahead touchdown and took a 23-21 lead with 4:54 remaining in the game, they fumbled the extra-point snap.

Holder and starting quarterback Trey Cox picked it up and ran backwards several yards before heaving the ball towards the end zone, where Wynton Ruth came down with it for a two-point conversion that made it a four-point lead..

Cabot’s Austin Morse then fumbled the ensuing kickoff and North Little Rock covered it at the 24-yard line. After a three plays, place kicker Savana Melton made her third field goal of the night, this one from 40 yards out to give the Wildcats a 28-21 lead with 2:40 remaining.

Cabot (6-4, 3-4) put together a 65-yard drive with the help of a pass interference penalty on third and 10 that gave the Panthers a first down at the 50. Quarterback Jarrod Barnes found Morse for 9-, and then 15-yard pass plays to the 26. He then dropped a perfectly placed pass in Colin Thames arms on a wheel route for a 26-yard touchdown with 1:16 to go.

The Panthers went for the win, but Morse was dropped for a 2-yard loss on a counter.

The Wildcats covered Cabot’s onside kick attempt and kneeled twice to seal the win.

Cabot coach Mike Malham was pleased with the effort his team gave, but lamented the onslaught of bad breaks in the last two quarters.

“Boy we had them on the ropes and then it seemed like everything just went wrong,” said Malham. “They fumbled that snap on the extra point and got two out of it, and that turned out to be the difference in the game. If they kick that thing they’re only up six. All we have to do is kick our extra point and get a stop on defense. But we competed. I’m proud of them. Defense played really well and everybody left it out there tonight. If we get a win next week we get to come back here and try it again.”

The Panther defense was tenacious in the first half. The vaunted North Little Rock offense that has averaged almost 50 points per game, did not manage a single first down in seven possessions.

North Little Rock coach Jamie Mitchell had no answer for why his offense was totally stifled in the first half.

“That’s a good question,” Mitchell said. “That was all Cabot. I’m not sure. I just know we couldn’t find any room anywhere. We were finally able to get a little something working in the second half and got some things going our way. But they made it tough.”

Cabot took the opening kickoff of the game and drove 77 yards in nine plays, marching methodically down the field. Barnes picked up 21 yards from the 34 to the 45. Adam Flores then broke a pair of tackles in the backfield to turn it into an 11-yard gain. Two plays later, Morse scampered around the left side for 22 yards and the score with 9:27 left in the first quarter.

That’s how it stayed until a fumbled snap resulted in North Little Rock taking possession at the Cabot 19. The defense held, and Melton nailed a 36-yard field goal to make it 7-3 with 5:58 to go in the first half.

The Wildcats then tried an onside kick, but Eric Larsen snatched it out of the air and returned it 15 yards to the NLR 40. Cabot went backwards 8 yards on the next two plays, but Barnes kept on the option right and ran 48 yards for the score. Mason Martin’s extra point made it 14-3 with 4:26 left in the half.

NLR (10-0, 7-0) then went three and out, including two incomplete passes and only ran 62 seconds off the clock. Cabot took over on its 37 after a punt and had all three timeouts remaining.

Almost all the yards came on two plays. Flores pulled down a 22-yard reception with a defender all over him to set up first down at the 38. Barnes then ran 23 yards to the 15.

Flores got another hard-fought and crucial 6 yards on third and 5 to set up first and goal at the 4. It took three more plays and two timeouts from there, but Barnes sneaked it in up the middle on fourth and goal at the 1 with one second left in the half.

The second half wasn’t as much all NLR as it was Cabot misfortune. The Wildcats’ first big break was when a deflected pass turned flew right into hands of Erion Cooney, who caught it in stride and raced to the Cabot 8-yard line.

The rest of the half included three more turnovers, including two safeties on a blocked punt and a high punt snap.

Cabot finished with 283 yards of offense while NLR had 209. The Panthers out gained NLR 224 to 11 in the first half. NLR out gained Cabot 198 to 59 in the second half.

The Panthers, the five seed from the 7A-Central, will travel to 7A-West four seed Bentonville West on Thursday for its first-round playoff game. The game was moved to Thursday because West shares a field with Bentonville High, who got the benefit of playing on the regularly-scheduled Friday night by winning a co-conference championship and earning the higher three seed.

The winner of that game goes to North Little Rock the following Friday.