By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Rancho Cotate took a simple defensive game plan into its big showdown with Casa Grande on Friday: keep quarterback JaJuan Lawson in the pocket, and get running back Elijah Qualls on the ground.
Of course, other opponents had expressed similar goals against the Gauchos, but found them much easier said than done.
Lawson is maddeningly elusive and Qualls, the 285-pound force headed to the University of Washington, is usually the one sending guys to the turf.
But Rancho, with exceptional size and speed in the front seven, is no ordinary opponent. The Cougars bottled up the Casa offense in impressive fashion and finally got their offense going, too, scoring 22 points in the fourth quarter and celebrating their homecoming week with a 28-7 victory over the visiting Gauchos in a game full of rattling hits.
Rancho Cotate remains tied with Cardinal Newman atop the North Bay League standings at 4-0, while Casa Grande (5-2, 3-1) experienced its first loss ever in the NBL.
“This is the best team we’ve played,” Cougars coach Ed Conroy said afterward, with jubilant Rancho Cotate students cavorting around him on the field. “I think the kids played unbelievable. Defense played better than we thought. I thought we were gonna have to score more points than that. I’ll take it.”
When these teams met last November in a North Coast Section Div. 2 quarterfinal game, Rancho won in a 42-35 shootout. The pace of this one was much different, with the defenses dominating for long stretches.
The Rancho Cotate defensive performance was especially impressive as the Cougars held Qualls to 28 yards on eight carries. They established their toughness early.
“Everyone said No. 1 couldn’t be stopped,” defensive end Tyler Mitchell said, referring to Qualls’ jersey number. “So stopping him brought everybody up.”
Lawson, meanwhile, had just 9 yards on eight rushing attempts. Casa Grande has been playing without two of its starting offensive linemen, center Conor Feeney and tackle Brian Guzman, both lost to injuries. It didn’t seem to matter much against lesser opponents.
“It was exploited tonight,” Casa coach Trent Herzog said.
Lawson was more efficient through the air. He completed 9 of 13 passes for 136 yards, but the Gauchos had few long drives. Their only points came on Lawson’s short pass to the left flat on third-and-8, which Jarred Roberts converted into a 69-yard touchdown after breaking a couple tackles.
Rancho didn’t fare much better in the early stages, and Casa Grande clung to a 7-6 lead as the final quarter began — setting up potential heartbreak for the Cougars.
Conroy put his usual kicker, Rodrigo Perez, on the bench for the first half because of a disciplinary reason. It was an issue early in the game. Rancho Cotate’s first drive ended with backup kicker Josh Belda’s low field-goal attempt getting blocked. And when the Cougars scored their first touchdown on a 2-yard run by Tanoa Peleti early in the second quarter, Belda nudged the ball just right of the goal post after his team was pushed back 5 yards for a false start.
“It was a scary situation,” said defensive end Tyler Mitchell, who had two of the Cougars’ four sacks. “It was the first time we’d been down in the fourth quarter. Kind of thought we couldn’t get out of it. But we pulled through.”
After a scoreless third quarter, Rancho finally cracked the end zone — helped by a roughing-the-kicker penalty. Perez had missed wide left from 33 yards, but the penalty gave the Cougars new life, and they capitalized on Michael Courchaine’s touchdown pass on a fade route to freshman Chris Taylor-Yamanoha, on third-and-goal from the 5-yard line.
Fired-up Rancho Cotate dominated after that. The Cougars stuffed Casa quarterback JaJuan Lawson on a fourth-and-1 play, and converted that stop into a 39-yard scoring pass from Courchaine to Carlos Soto. And Jalon Luque followed up his interception of a double pass by wide receiver Cole Boggs with a 45-yard touchdown run to ice the cake.
Luque finished with 96 yards on 18 rushing attempts. Courchaine completed 8 of 12 passes for 140 yards.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil [dot] barber [at] pressdemocrat [dot] com.