The Northwest Jaguars won bragging rights in the Battle of Great Seneca last Friday, upsetting the then-undefeated Quince Orchard Cougars, 35-21, and in the process raising their stature for the forthcoming Maryland 4A playoffs while casting concerns on QO’s.
The playoffs suddenly got a lot more interesting.
A packed crowd for Senior Night at the Cougar Dome watched as Northwest (7-2) won on both sides of the ball while their playmakers time and again produced big plays and QO’s didn’t. Sophomore quarterback Mark Pierce shredded the Cougars all night, going 19-29 for 331 yards and tossing two touchdown passes apiece to Joshua Gills and Matt Watson. His counterpart, QO’s Mike Murtaugh, battled Jaguar blitzes to go 15-30 for 201 yards. His two second half touchdown passes to Elliott Davis were too little and too late to top Northwest, which had opened a 21-7 first half lead.
“Our kids just played hard and made a lot of plays that they needed to make,” said Northwest head coach Mike Neubeiser, a former QO assistant. “We were able to stop them a few times when they were driving. They’re an unbelievable football team so it’s a big win for our program.” Indeed, QO had entered the contest having won their last five games by a combined score of 240-13.
Cougar head coach Dave Mencarini joined in the mutual admiration. “They played great,” he said of the Jaguars. “My hat’s off to them. Their coaches, their players, they were unbelievable tonight and they deserved to win.”
The game began as a backyard tussle between neighborhood rivals, as many of the players have grown up playing with and against each other in youth sports in the Gaithersburg-Germantown area. “A natural rivalry” both coaches called it, which in part accounted for the physicality and numerous personal foul and unsportmanlike conduct calls on both teams throughout the night.
Northwest set the tone at the outset, sacking Murtaugh on the game’s first snap and opening the scoring in the second quarter with a two-yard Pierce-to-Gills touchdown toss. QO looked ready to respond when Malcolm Brown returned the kickoff to the 42 and a quick run by Kyle Green brought them into Northwest territory. But Murtaugh missed an open Shawn Barlow near the goal line and the QO drive stalled. That was a recurring theme all game as Murtaugh either just missed receivers or they had chances to make tough catches but could not.
Northwest took over and Pierce led them on a well-conceived drive mixing runs and short passes, capped by a one-yard scoring plunge by Rasheed Gillis with 3:11 in the half. For the first time all year, a team had scored two touchdowns on the Black Paw Defense, and the Cougars and their Red Army sensed they were in for a tough night.
QO rebounded with a kick return to midfield by Davis and a three-play, 53-second scoring drive ending with a 10-yard Kevin Joppy sweep. But just as quickly the Jaguars drove back, and a 13-yard touchdown catch by Joshua Gills gave them a 21-7 halftime lead.
QO showed life early in the second half, stopping Northwest on the opening possession, closing the gap to 21-13 on a 12-yard pass to Davis, and getting a three and out on the Jaguars’ next possession. But two QO drives stalled, and despite good punting by Ben Brown that pinned Northwest deep, they broke the Cougars’ back with an 86-yard bomb to Matt Watson to open a 35-13 lead with 8:13 left in the third.
Despite the loss, QO (8-1) remained in first place in the 4A West region and still has the home field advantage over 8-1 Gaithersburg (who they beat the previous week) and Northwest. They can clinch the top spot with a win in the regular season final at Wootton on Friday at 6:30 p.m.
While Neubeiser said the win gave his team confidence “going forward in the playoffs,” the loss was a wake-up call for a QO team aiming to play in the state final for the third year in a row. Northwest drew a roadmap for how to beat the Cougars, exposing gaps in their secondary, stifling their pass rush (which missed the injured Lamonte Armstrong), kicking away from their explosive returners, and launching blitzes that seemed to confuse the QO linemen.
Mencarini took responsibility for the loss, saying “it’s my job to have these guys ready to play every week and you know, we had a big win last week against Gaithersburg and tonight we came out flat.” After the game, he told his disappointed players “keep your heads up” and “we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
That Gaithersburg performance was a stunning contrast to Friday’s. QO dominated every phase of the game, topping the Trojans, 41-6, in what the coach called “a total team win.” The Cougars scored on their first four possessions, racked up over 450 yards of total offense while holding Gaithersburg to 149, and never punted in what was billed as a showdown between undefeated, locally-ranked cross-town rivals but was never really in doubt.
“We didn’t play a perfect game, but we probably played a near-perfect game,” said Davis, who scored on a 72-yard pass-and-run from Murtaugh near the end of the first half and set up an earlier Joppy touchdown with a long completion to the one.
About the Cougars’ only mistake was a botched handoff between Murtaugh and third-string running back Green who had just entered the game in the third quarter. The ball ended up in the hands of a Trojan who returned it for a touchdown. That ended the shutout for the Cougars, but was nevertheless the fourth game this year that the Black Paw Defense did not allow a score. Adam McClean, who’s spent the last two weeks on the Washington Post’s All-Met Watch and most of that game in the Gaithersburg backfield, harassed star quarterback Nick DeCarlo and got in on three sacks.
Green gained 144 yards on 17 carries after that, including a 32-yard scoring burst. It was the second consecutive big game for Green, a junior, and fellow mighty-mite Barlow (12 carries, 80 yards, one TD), a sophomore, giving Mencarini even more weapons to complement the versatile Joppy (16 carries, 70 yards) and talented corps of receivers. Murtaugh was an efficient 7-9 for 144 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions, a nice bounce back from his uncharacteristic three interceptions the previous week against Sherwood.
Against Sherwood, QO fell behind early, weathered their own first half mistakes, then blew open the game in the second to win, 42-7, at the Cougar Dome.
Sherwood scored first after a Murtaugh pass bounced off the hands of sophomore tight end Gregg Williams and into the hands of Sherwood’s Elijah Spottswood, who danced his way to the Cougar 21. Two plays later Sherwood scored on a 17-yard pass and QO was behind, 7-0, for the first time since Week 2 at Damascus. Murtaugh, who entered the game having thrown only one interception all season, threw two more in the first half, both killing drives in Sherwood territory.
Momentum shifted midway through the second quarter when linebacker Clay Shelton-Jones intercepted a Sherwood pass in the flat and returned it to the 6. Barlow, starting at tailback in place of Joppy who was nursing an injured ankle, burst into the end zone untouched behind a lead block from McLean, tying the score at 7-7 with 7:35 in the half.
Two possessions later the Cougars got great field position at the Sherwood 43 after a shanked punt with 47 seconds left in the half. This time, Murtaugh’s aim was true as he hit Joppy, who had lined up in the slot, on a 24-yard post pattern to the end zone, and the Cougars were up 14-7. “We really weren’t going to play (Joppy) tonight,” Mencarini said, “but we got in a situation where we had a hard time moving the ball so we threw him in there.”
Malcolm Brown sparked QO early in the second half when he returned a Sherwood punt 70 yards all the way down the right sideline and suddenly it was 20-7. That was one of three long punt returns on the night for the dynamic Brown. QO had a touchdown called back later in the third quarter on yet another holding penalty, but broke it open in the fourth quarter on two touchdown runs by Green, another by Barlow and a McLean safety.
Barlow led the Cougars in rushing with 100 yards on 18 carries, while Green chipped in with 88 on 11 carries. Mencarini was pleased with his two little scatbacks, neither of whom weighs more than 150 lbs. “Kyle and Shawn really stepped up,” he said. He also credited the offensive line for “taking over in the second half,” and afterwards awarded offensive line coach Chuck Oswald a game ball.