Tuesday, October 03, 2017

SPORTS STORY >> Strong ground games collide

Leader sports editor

Save for one half against El Dorado, for the first four games of the season, the Cabot defense ranged from good to very good. Game five was different, and it will have to get back to the former when the Panthers travel to Conway this Friday for a conference matchup with the archrival Wampus Cats.

Conway has rolled up some impressive offensive numbers this season. The good news for Cabot is that it has mostly been on the ground. It was El Dorado and Fort Smith Southside’s passing game that perplexed the Panthers. Last week, Southside rolled up 41 points and almost 600 yards (593) of offense. That included just under 400 yards passing, but even most of the rushing yards came from quarterback Taye Gatewood scrambling when he couldn’t find open receivers.

“The defense is going to have to step up and play,” said Cabot coach Mike Malham. “I don’t think we can score over 40 against them like we have the last three games.”

Leading the Conway offense has been senior running back Michael George. Except for the season opening, 19-17 loss to Springdale, in which he only got 12 carries, George has rushed for well over 100 yards in the other four games.

Last week he carried 28 times for 187 yards against a tough North Little Rock defense in a 24-14 loss. In Conway’s most impressive outing, George had 21 totes for 132 yards in a 35-16 victory over Bentonville.

He carried 17 times for 156 yards in a 49-18 blowout of Jonesboro, but his standout outing so far came in the wild 54-47 win over Southside.

In that game, George carried 31 times for 354 yards. He has 109 carries on the season for 891 yards in just five games.

“They will throw it,” Malham said. “They’ll do what it takes. But when they’re moving it on the gorund, that’s where they’re going to stay. They’re a lot like us that way. Those handoffs are just about 100 percent.”

Cabot also ran wild on Southside, totaling 520 rushing and total yards in last week’s 43-41 victory. The week before that, the Panthers had 455 yards rushing in a 42-20 win over Catholic.

After punting six times in the season-opening win at Pine Bluff, The Panthers have only punted twice since then.

“The offense, so far, has been a pleasant surprise,” Malham said. “We didn’t really know what to expect with a new quarterback and whole new offensive line. We felt like we had some good backs. We’ve moved the ball pretty well. We’ve been fortunate enough to do that.”

Cabot (4-1, 2-0) hasn’t needed to score 40 points in two of those 40-plus point victories.

The percentage of completed passes against Cabot hasn’t been exceptional, but the yards-per-catch has been. Southside only completed 56 percent (23 of 41) of its pass attempts, but averaged 18 yards per completion.

The Panthers’ run defense has been exceptional. They have only allowed a 100-yards rushing by a running back once this season. That was Catholic’s Samy Johnson, who carried 21 times for 125 yards in Week 4.

Gatewood had 23 carries for 182 yards against Cabot last week, but again, most of those came from scrambling on pass plays.

Conway, however, is the best rushing offensive team Cabot has faced this year.

“They’ve got a good running back,” Malham said. “Even against North Little Rock they ran up almost 200 yards on them. They got down there close a couple times and didn’t score. North Little Rock’s got some athletes. We’re going to have to be ready to play.”