By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
PETALUMA — Visiting Maria Carrillo did a pretty good job containing Elijah Qualls, Casa Grande’s 285-pound wrecking ball of a running back, keeping the University of Washington-bound senior at just under 5 yards a carry. Unfortunately for the Pumas, you have to pick your poison against Casa these days.
Quarterback JaJuan Lawson more than picked up the slack, running for two touchdowns and passing for two more in the Gauchos’ 35-10 victory in their homecoming game.
“I don’t know that it is complicated to game plan,” Carrillo coach Jay Higgins said afterward. “It’s complicated in execution. (Qualls) is a load, and you have to commit to gang-tackling him. And (Lawson), we didn’t want to see him escape out of the pocket and get yards on the ground, yet he was able to do that. He’s quite an athlete.”
The Pumas were down 14-0 almost before they knew what hit them. On the third play of the game, Lawson found the wide-open Corey Llorence for a 45-yard touchdown pass. The Gauchos immediately retrieved the ball on an interception by senior safety Jarred Roberts, and three plays after that, Lawson carried the ball around left end, paused to let the defense overpursue, and took off for a 48-yard score.
Casa Grande had missed its first extra point, but Lawson and Llorence combined for a 2-point conversion to bump their lead to 14-0 just 3:47 into the game.
Qualls capped a 90-yard drive with a 13-yard touchdown run with a minute to play in the first quarter to make it 21-0. But with the Gauchos threatening a rout, Julian Gonzalez — Maria Carrillo’s dynamic two-way player — sparked the Pumas with a 72-yard touchdown bolt on a quarterback keeper, eluding a few tacklers along the way.
Casa would not be denied, though. Trent Herzog’s team scored again on Lawson’s 26-yard strike to another open receiver, Cole Boggs, to go up 28-7 at halftime. Lawson added a 9-yard scoring run in the third quarter.
The junior QB finished 10 of 15 for 208 yards, completing passes to seven different receivers despite being sacked three times and fielding a number of low shotgun snaps. Lawson added 106 yards on 12 rushing attempts.
“JaJuan does an excellent job keeping his eyes upfield,” Herzog said. “He’s amazing. Some of the plays he’s made this year, I shake my head. Wow.”
Qualls had 79 yards on 16 carries, but spent the final minutes of the game stewing over a fumble he lost at the Maria Carrillo 10-yard line midway through the fourth quarter.
“He’s rough on himself. He rides himself,” Herzog said. “But I told him. I went over there and said, ‘Hey, you’re a great player. Hold your head up and enjoy this victory. He’s fine. For about five minutes he was down on himself.”
The Pumas (3-3, 2-1 NBL) moved the ball fairly well against Casa Grande (5-1, 3-0), with 322 yards of total offense, but had too little to show for it. They reached the Gauchos’ 6-yard line the first quarter and made it as far as the 17-yard line in the second, but were stopped on downs both times. Carrillo began the second half with a long, grinding drive but bogged down at the 12 and settled for Anthony Wirz’s 29-yard field goal.
“Offensively, we needed to capitalize and score whenever we got the ball down the field,” “Yet again, there were a couple of times we stalled out and didn’t make that happen. You know, woulda-coulda-shoulda. You’d like to see the game play out had we done those things differently, but we did not, and they played a great game.”
The road doesn’t get any easier for either of these teams. Casa has a big showdown at Rancho Cotate next week, while Carrillo hosts Cardinal Newman. Those four teams came into the weekend tied atop the North Bay League with 2-0 league records.
The Gauchos are eager to avenge a 42-35 loss to the Cougars in the quarterfinals of last year’s North Coast Section Division 2 playoffs.
“Big, big one,” Herzog said. “We’ve had this one on our calendar. … We’re excited to have an opportunity to play them.”
It’s easy to be excited when you have a one-two punch like Qualls and Lawson.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at phil.barber [at] pressdemocrat [dot] com.