Wednesday, November 08, 2017

SPORTS STORY >> Bulldogs attack through air

Leader sports editor

Cabot may be the higher seed and the home team for this weekend’s first-round playoff matchup with Springdale, but that won’t make it a big favorite. The Panthers (6-4, 3-4) are the No. 4 seed from the 7A-Central. Springdale (6-4, 3-4) is the five seed from the 7A West. For most of this century, the West has been the much stronger conference, but the Central has made strides in recent years.

There was no Central team in the state championship game for almost a decade, but Cabot ended a nine-year drought for Central teams with an appearance in 2013, and North Little Rock played for the title last year. There still hasn’t been a Central champion since Little Rock Central in 2004.

But the main thing that jumps out when comparing the seasons is Friday’s two combatants have had a common opponent. Springdale opened the season with a shocking 19-17 win over Conway. Five weeks later, the Wampus Cats handed Cabot by far its worst beating of the year in a 49-14 mercy rule game.

Making the Springdale-Conway game even more odd, Conway hammered 7A-West champion Bentonville 35-16 in week three, and Bentonville demolished Springdale 49-21 in week five.

“They’ve only lost to the four power teams up there, and they beat Conway in the opening of the season, said Cabot coach Mike Malham. “So they’re not going to be awe of us. I can tell you that for sure. We’re going to have to play smart and not beat ourselves with penalties and turnovers. We had seven procedure penalties last week against North Little Rock. Seemed like every time we got the ball westarted with first and 15. That’s going to get us beat every time. We’ve got to do better than that or we’ll be through.”

Malham likes the way his defense has played the last few weeks, despite losses to Bryant and North Little Rock among those games. Springdale, however, presents a different challenge.

“They’re going to throw it around,” Malham said. “I think our defense has gotten better the last three games. Of course North Little Rock didn’t throw it as much. We played good defense at Northside but they’re running it more this year. Bryant didn’t throw it deep a lot, mostly short passes. Springdale is going to test our secondary. Southside is really the only team you’d say just sort of wore us out (through the air). I think we’ve gotten better since then, but Springdale is going to be a similar kind of challenge.”

Springdale has actually run a few more running plays this year than passing plays, but the base offense is predominantly pass-oriented.

The rushing numbers were skewed by several blowout wins over the lower tier teams in the conference.

Senior quarterback Layne Hutchins has completed 60 percent of his passes this year for 2,072 yards.

He has thrown 19 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions. He spreads the ball around as well. Three receivers have more than 30 catches this season.

Senior Kamon Robinson leads the team in receptions with 42 for 539 yards. Senior Alex Thompson is the yardage leader even though he’s played in only nine games.

He has caught 36 passes for 636 yards. Junior Jaden Cornelius has 30 receptions for 411 yards, and 11 other players have caught passes for the Bulldogs this year. Four of them have at least 10 passes.

Juniors Garrett Vaughan and Jonathan Lopez are the leading rushers. Vaughan missed three games this year, but still has 93 carries for 551 yards. Lopez has played in all 10 games, and he as 75 carries for 406 yards. Hutchins is the third-leading rusher with 77 carries for 370 yards.

The team’s best player is senior defensive lineman Isaiah Nichols. The 6-4, 275-pounder has scholarship offers from Arkansas and other major Division I programs.

“We’re so little on the offensive line,” Malham said. “We haven’t done a bad job, but when five of them are less than 200 pounds and you’re playing against guys like that, it makes it tough. But I think we’ve done all right. We just have to eliminate the penalties, keep taking care of the football and play good defense. It’s not going to be easy, but hopefully we can get us a win and keep going.”