The final score may not look like it, but the Cabot Panthers had to work hard to beat the Searcy Lions 35-14 and secure their spot in the playoffs.
Cabot (6-4, 4-3 7A/6A-East) led just 21-13 with 3:41 left to play after Searcy’s quarterback Antoine Arnold finished off a drive with a two-yard touchdown. Arnold made the Cabot coaches nervous all night with a big arm and bullish running style.
"We were worried about #3 (Arnold) because he is a load," Cabot coach Mike Malham said. "He had some runs where he just drug our defense for 20 yards. You could look back and see the string of red jerseys on the ground."
Arnold was a one-man show for the Lions, rushing for 180 yards and two scores on 23 carries, while completing 9 of 15 passes for another 100 yards. Arnold had a part in 280 of the team’s 288 yards.
While Searcy was relying on one player, Cabot had several players step up on offense and defense to help out in the win. Kyle Edgar, Zach Launius, Russ Rankin, Max Carroll and Kason Kimbrell played their parts on offense, while Brandon Rhea provided pressure from the middle of the defense line and Seth Hoggard stopped a drive with an interception.
Cabot had a little bit of good luck early on when the Lions fumbled the opening kickoff and Jake Ferguson recovered the ball for the Panthers. Starting on the Lions’ 32-yard line, Cabot used six plays to take an early 7-0 lead behind Edgar’s first touchdown of the night.
Edgar finished the night with 20 carries for 158 yards and three touchdowns. The Panthers rushed for 354 yards on the night. Launius helped Cabot with 98 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. Max Carroll added 75 yards on 12 carries.
The Panthers offense fell out of sync after that opening drive, as Searcy’s defensive line was able to hold their ground and get some penetration to disrupt the running game.
Searcy’s second possession turned into a massive 17-play, 90-yard scoring drive that lasted over seven minutes. Arnold scored from the one-yard-line to tie the game 7-7, where it would stand until halftime.
Cabot’s offense got back on track n the second half, scoring on their first two possessions. The Panthers opened the half with a 72-yard drive, highlighted by Launius getting outside for a 36-yard gain, before scoring two plays later from six yards out.
"We didn’t really make many adjustments at halftime … we knew what Searcy was doing, but we just weren’t executing," Malham said. "We started executing in the second half and I think maybe we wore them down a little bit. We got Zach Launius back tonight, so I was able to keep a fresh fullback in there for pretty much every play."
Following a Searcy turnover, Cabot went on a 13-play, 68-drive drive ending with a one-yard touchdown by Russ Rankin to go ahead 21-7.
After Searcy scored with just under four minutes left to play, the Panthers recovered the onside kick attempt, then put the game away as Edgar scored on touchdown runs of 41 and 38 yards less than 30 seconds apart. The second came after the Lions (5-5, 4-3) muffed the kickoff. Edgar’s 41-yard score came on fourth-and-one with 1:53 remaining in the game.
Jake Vaughan led Cabot with 12 tackles. Jake Ferguson had 10. Ian Thompson and Tyler Gilbertson had eight tackles each. Colby Ferguson and Matt Griffin had six tackles each.
Cabot will play the Bryant Hornets in the first round of the Class 7A state playoffs Friday. Game time is 7 p.m. at Bryant.