With the rain coming down Saturday night as if Casa Grande and Concord were playing under this huge garden hose, only one expectation was realistic in this NCS playoff game. It wasn't going to be pretty. The mud and the slop and the rain would reduce, if not altogether cancel, speed and whatever other skills the players possessed. The game, in essence, would be won by a mistake.
"We couldn't afford a turnover and we talked it over with our players yesterday and today," said Casa coach Trent Herzog.
Herzog knew the conditions. The players knew the conditions. After all, everyone can read a weather report. But then there's the dealing with it when bad weather can turn the most obvious of intentions — don't give the ball away — inside out, making unpredictable a large part of how the game is played.
"JaJuan (Lawson) had a hard time gripping the ball," Herzog said of his quarterback.
With 8:09 left in the third quarter, with the game tied at 6, Lawson threw a pass that wobbled and wiggled and was semi-close to his receiver. Concord defensive back Uaisele Manoa didn't have to do much except stand there and catch it at the Casa 40. Manoa sprinted alongside the Casa sideline and into the end zone with the interception. And faster than you can say "game-decider," Concord had momentum. A single touchdown in this mess felt that decisive.
"I am surprised there were only two turnovers in the game," Herzog said.
As if the weather wasn't enough of an unsettling influence for both teams, the stadium lights went out at 7:37 p.m. The game was tied at 6 at that point, midway through the second quarter. Lights returned in 26 minutes. As spooky as it was to stand in total darkness, more disturbing for Herzog was the derailing of what the coach felt was Casa's control of the game.
"After the lights came back on," Herzog said, "we stopped moving the ball."
One of the strengths of the Casa offense is Lawson's ability to run and evade and make a defense second guess. It was clear Lawson did not have that skill Saturday night and it wasn't only because of the weather. It was also because of the severe high ankle sprain he sustained four weeks ago against Ukiah.
"We got lucky last week by having a bye," Herzog said. "If we had to play, JaJuan wouldn't have made it. He had about 750 yards running before that Ukiah game. In the last four games, he's lucky to have made 50 yards total. But JaJuan is a warrior. He didn't want to come out."
Lawson was 3-of-9 passing for 16 yards and two interceptions.
The Gauchos, however, came away with an accomplishment. Concord running back Olito Thompson, who averaged 164 yards a game and set a Northern California single-season rushing record in 2011 with 3,488 yards, on Saturday was held for 34 yards on 19 carries.
"We had our chances and we didn't capitalize on them," Herzog said. "But you can see why Concord has won NCS titles. They are a very good team. You can't make mistakes against them. We made one."
And on a night in which there were no long drives — the weather prevented sustained marches — it would be decided in a blink of an eye. The blink, that interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter, happened so quick, changed the game so dramatically, it almost seemed unfair for the Mud Bowl to be decided by such a small segment of time. About seven seconds it took for Manoa to run the ball into the end zone. That's all it would take to separate one mud wrestler from another.