By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
PETALUMA — The Cardinal Newman defense was opportunistic in the first half Friday at Casa Grande, taking the ball away from the Gauchos three times. The Cardinals didn’t have to be timely in the second half. They were downright dominant, holding Casa to minus-12 yards in the third quarter and priming for the North Coast Section playoffs with a 25-7 victory.
The game was for second place in the NBL behind Rancho Cotate and, perhaps more important, for playoff seeding. Newman came into the game as the third-ranked team in the NCS in Division 3, and hopes to move up; Casa came in ranked fourth in Division 2, and could well slip down.
The NCS seeding meeting is Sunday.
The perennial powers had not met since 2006, and had played just once in the past 12 years. Now that Casa Grande has moved to the North Bay League, they will square off every season. If Friday’s result is any indication, it will be a learning curve for the Gauchos, who generated just one first down in the second half and turned over the ball five times in all.
“They flat-out whipped our tails tonight,” Gauchos coach Trent Herzog said. “They were the better team in all aspects. They had a better game plan, they executed it and we didn’t. And we turned the ball over five or six times, they didn’t turn the ball over at all. And against a team like Cardinal Newman, you can’t afford turnovers.”
The Newman defense was ferocious. The Cardinals built an 18-7 halftime lead on the strength of three takeaways (fumble recoveries by linebackers Chris Steele and Julian Torres, and an interception by Zack Reyes), and only got better after halftime.
Newman got two more interceptions against backup quarterbacks in the fourth quarter, both by senior Travis Peccorini, to ice the game.
Casa actually controlled the line of scrimmage in the first half, outgaining Cardinal Newman 142-93. But those turnovers — two fumbles by running back John Porchivina and an interception thrown by JaJuan Lawson — frustrated the Gauchos. Newman’s scoring drives in the first half went 15, 39 and 24 yards.
Keaton Dunsford hit Jacob Webb for a 20-yard touchdown on his first pass of the game, and found Reyes later in the first quarter for a 14-yard scoring connection that put the Cardinals up 12-0.
Casa Grande (7-3 overall, 5-2 in league) cut the deficit to 12-7 on Porchivina’s 37-yard catch-and-run on a shovel pass from Lawson early in the second quarter, but Cardinal Newman (9-1, 6-1) scored again on a 10-yard run by Michael Mitchell. The Cardinals failed on their first three extra-point attempts.
Mitchell was standing in for 1,000-yard runner Kenny Carter, who missed the game with a knee injury. He gained steam in the second half and finished with 121 tough yards on 25 carries.
“He’s a stud,” Dunsford said of Mitchell. “He’s a great player, and I think he earned himself some playing time today.”
Newman was also missing two-way star Phil (Scooby) Wright, one of the best players in the Redwood Empire, who is out with a concussion.
The Gauchos had their injury problems, too. Lawson, already nursing a sore ankle, reinjured the joint while getting sacked late in the second quarter and lost the mobility that has made him such a dangerous quarterback. Under constant pressure from the Newman line, he was sacked six times, twice when shotgun snaps sailed over his head.
Lawson finished 8 of 14 for 104 yards and an interception. Big Elijah Qualls moved from center to QB to take a few snaps in a wildcat scheme, and threw an interception on his only attempt. Same for backup quarterback Brad Freitas.
Dunsford, meanwhile, was 9 of 20 for 153 and three touchdowns, adding a 19-yard strike to Kevin Lucey in the third quarter. His receivers were open deep for much of the night. Dunsford has the arm strength to get the ball to them, and once he settled down the yards were there for the taking.
The resilient Cardinals scored three of their four touchdowns on third- or fourth-and-long.
Cardinal Newman now heads into the postseason on a high note. Casa Grande, on the other hand, must find a way to regroup in a hurry.
“We’ve got to fix some things, and get back to basics and try to make a run,” Herzog said. “I know we have a great team, and I know we have a long run in us. We’ve gotta have a short memory about tonight. New season starts on Monday, and we’re excited to get an opportunity to keep playing.”
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.