VAN BUREN — Don’t count these Wampus Cats out of playoff contention.
In almost a must-win game situation, Conway dominated Van Buren 35-7 in a pivotal 7A-Central Conference matchup Friday night at Blakemore Field. With the victory, the Cats (3-5, 2-3) now have the leg up on two conference opponents (Van Buren and Little Rock Central) — an important factor as six of the eight league schools advance to the postseason.
But even as important as that, Conway had probably its best effort of the season, heading into the final two weeks.
"This is by far the best four quarters of football we’ve played," Cats coach Clint Ashcraft said. "From start to finish, we played really well."
Playing well Friday night most likely will give Conway its first playoff berth since 2007. That has to feel good, right?
"Yeah, but we’ve got to guard against getting complacent," Ashcraft said. "We’ve got to move up the ladder in the playoff seeding.
"... This win actually made the last two games more important, believe it or not."
The play of quarterback Xavier Acklin may have been a little difficult to believe at times. The senior posted career highs in rushing yards and touchdown runs, as he carried 23 times for 158 yards and four touchdowns.
"It feels good to know that the coaches trust me to lead with my arm and running," said Acklin, who had scoring runs of 8, 1, 4 and 2 yards. "My offensive line played tremendous. I commend them for how they played."
The defensive line wasn’t too shabby either.
Trailing 7-0 midway through the first quarter, the Pointers (1-6-1, 1-4) recovered a Conway fumble just four yards from the end zone. After the first three plays resulted in just three yards, Van Buren faced a fourth-and-1 situation, and the Cat defense kept Connor Joyce from crossing the goal line.
That set the tone for what ended up being a dominating defensive performance.
"When we stopped them there, our defense felt good about themselves and started playing with a lot of confidence," Ashcraft said.
Conway outgained the Pointers 389-221 in total yards. But the real sign was how each team responded to various chances.
"When we got a break, we didn’t cash in," Pointer coach Mike Lee said. "When they (Cats) got a break, they cashed in. That’s the difference in the two teams."
The Conway defense forced Van Buren into committing four fumbles, recovering three of the loose balls. Darion Hill also picked off a Dillon Pittman pass, giving the Cats a 4-2 advantage on turnovers.
"I didn’t have us ready to play," Lee said. "I’ve got to do a better job of getting them ready."
It doesn’t help anything to have the opposing defense make a goal-line stand and continue to have the upper hand.
"It takes life from us and gives them life," Lee said. "That’s a big momentum swing. Football is a game of momentum."
Acklin had plenty of momentum. He completed 9 of 15 passes for 119 yards but did most of his damage on the ground.
Still, it wasn’t his performance alone that led to those numbers.
"It feels great, but I couldn’t have done it without my offensive line and my receivers blocking downfield," Acklin said.
It didn’t take the Cats long to capitalize off that blocking.
Conway opened the game just 53 yards from paydirt after a failed onside kick. Acklin carried 24 yards on the first carry, and Jemarkus Harmon — who had 49 yards on six rushes — finished the two-play drive with a 29-yard touchdown at the 11:29 mark in the first quarter. Ben Riner’s PAT gave the Cats an early 7-0 lead.
Conway got a pair of touchdowns from Acklin to take a 21-0 lead into halftime, and Acklin added two more in the second half to complete the scoring.
He also found a connection with Jalen Jones, who saw his first action of the season last week. Jones finished with four catches for 38 yards. Harmon added 50 yards receiving.
Van Buren didn’t get on the board until Jacob Jenkins crossed the goal line from 1 yard out just five seconds into the fourth quarter. A 27-yard halfback pass from Kevin Neal to Jacob Thomson two plays earlier helped set up the score. A PAT by Jeremy Martin cut the lead to 28-7 before Acklin’s final touchdown.
A big matchup with longtime rival Russellville awaits Conway next week.
"Our MO all season has been play a bad first half and a good second half," Ashcraft said. "We finally played two good halves. I hope the kids can see that if they play hard all four quarters, then they can play with anyone and hopefully they got more confidence."