Hornets strive for strong finish, beginning at Cabot tonight

File photo by Kevin Nagle

Editor’s note: Tonight’s Bryant-Cabot game will be broadcast at 93.7 FM and 690 AM Fox Sports Arkansas with pre-game at 6:30 p.m., and live streamed by Fidelity Local 6 here

And so, the gauntlet begins.

The three teams remaining on the regular-season schedule of the Bryant Hornets are their three closest competitors in the race for the 7A-Central Conference championship and the first-round bye that goes with it in the playoff chase for the Class 7A State championship. Their path begins tonight with a game at Cabot against the fourth-place Panthers, who are stinging after back-to-back losses on the road at Conway and Little Rock Central.

It’s a rivalry that began in 1953 when both cities and schools were much, much different. Though there was a break in the series (2013-15), Bryant has not won at Cabot since 2006.

Last week, the Hornets of 2017 became the first since 1999 (and the second ever) to start a season 7-0. But that’s more about where they’ve been. The concern now is where they’re going.

Seven is nice but 13 is the goal — an unbeaten season and a State championship.

“I’m really proud of our football team and the strides that those guys have made,” said Bryant head coach Buck James on Thursday. “They’ve worked really hard and they keep doing the things it takes to be successful.

“We’ve just got to understand that, the rest of the way, we’ve got to play extremely hard and we’ve got to do it for four quarters,” he added.

The coach was referring to last week’s game, a 30-19 win over Fort Smith Southside, in which the Hornets started a little slowly and, after building a 27-3 lead, gave up 16 points in the final eight minutes to make it look a lot closer than it was.

Early in the at game, the Mavericks slowed the Hornets with an unexpected approach on defense.

This week, there won’t be much of that. With Cabot, you can count on the fact that they do what they always do. On offense, it’s the power running game and option football out of the dead-T. On defense, it’s bend but don’t break.

“Coach (Mike) Malham is a legend in Arkansas,” James noted. “He’s won nearly 300 ballgames and done most of that there at Cabot.

“We’ve got to be ready to play at a high level because of their intensity and the way they play football,” he continued. “They bring it every play. It’s a hard-nosed game and it’s a very physical game. Our guys will have to be really mentally prepared as well as physically prepared.”

The Panthers will be buoyed on defense by the return of nose man Davonte Roberts (6-2, 275), the team’s top college prospect. Without Roberts, who was suspended for breaking a team rule, the Panthers gave up 49 points to Conway and 41 to Fort Smith Southside before being defeated at Central, 16-14.

“They’re a 5-2, cover-3 and that’s basically what they’ll do,” James related. “They’ll change their coverages from time to time but they’re going to bring at least five guys every time that ball’s snapped. They’ll play seven in the box and bring all seven.”

That makes it tough to run the ball. Last year, despite winning 48-20, the Hornets picked up just 48 yards on the ground.

The strategy is classic football 101: Stop the other team from running the ball on defense and, on offense, run it well yourself.

If given the chance, the Panthers will play keep-away with its ground game, eat clock and limit their opponents’ opportunities to score, making each possession precious and pressure-packed.

“They’re very consistent in what they do, both on offense and defense,” James acknowledged. “That makes them very good at what they’re doing.”

Getting as much of a lead as you can early to force Cabot out its comfort zone on offense is big step toward victory.

Of course, stopping the Bryant running game will be more difficult this year. The Hornets’ offensive line in 2016 was learning on the job. The same guys are back this year and they’ve been a key to Bryant’s success. In seven games, the team has rushed for 1,478 yards. In 13 games a year ago, the Hornets managed 1,397. At 869 yards on 307 carries this season, junior running back LaTavion Scott has nearly twice as much yardage (869) — again, in seven games — as last year’s leading rusher (Cameron Coleman, 450) in 13.

The Hornets hope to see the continued improvement of sophomore quarterback Jake Meaders, who took over for injured starter Ren Hefley, late in Bryant’s game at Central two weeks ago. Against Southside, Meaders showed obvious improvement as the game went along. He went 19 of 28 for 247 yards and a touchdown while making plays (mostly later in the game) with his legs.

Defensively, Bryant has been tough against the run, though they’ve not played against anyone that runs it like Cabot. Opponents are averaging less that 100 yards rushing per game.

One thing the Hornets would like to improve is their turnover-to-takeaway ratio, particularly with the toughest part of the conference schedule looming. Currently, they’re minus-3 with 11 turnovers and eight takeaways.

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