Atascadero High senior linebacker Nick Ducasse described Thousand Oaks quarterback Max Gilliam in just two words.
“A pain,” he said.
The Greyhounds found the remedy in the nick of time.
Junior defensive back Zach Quigley had a game-clinching interception in his own end zone, running back R.J. Reusche filled in admirably for an injured Marc Martin, and Atascadero overcame a Herculean effort by Gilliam to win a back-and-forth thriller, 48-41, at home Friday night in the opening round of the CIF-Southern Section Northern Division playoffs.
“Honestly, neither of these teams should have gotten this draw,” Atascadero coach Vic Cooper said. “If they get a better draw, they’re probably a semifinal team.
“I don’t even know what to say. We finally just made the one big play at the end.”
Reusche ran for 241 yards and four touchdowns, including the go-ahead score from 11 yards out with 3:24 remaining.
But it wasn’t until Quigley jumped in front of a Gilliam pass intended for Kevin Howell in the back of the end zone with 30 seconds remaining that the Greyhounds could start to celebrate.
“I saw my one receiver go inside, and I just sat in my zone,” Quigley said. “I saw the crosser come behind me, and just went up and got it.”
Gilliam, a 6-foot-3 junior, accounted for 453 of Thousand Oaks’ 534 yards, completing 23 of 36 passes for 326 yards and four touchdowns and consistently scrambling out of the backfield for large chunks of yards for 127 rushing yards.
“They abandoned all hope of running in that second half,” Cooper said. “That kid is just a great athlete.”
The Greyhounds (9-2) gave up on the pass after a three-and-out to start the second half allowed the Lancers (7-4) to tie the score at 27 on Howell’s third TD reception from Gilliam.
From that point forward, Atascadero ran the ball exclusively behind its battering and bruising offensive line, scoring on its final three drives as Thousand Oaks continued to tie it.
Reusche carried 25 times, quarterback Tommy Carr ran for 113 yards, and Ethan Hicks and Ducasse added rushing scores as the Greyhounds pounded the ball inside despite missing Martin.
“R.J. stepped up,” Ducasse said. “The offensive line executed perfectly. Huge holes, big plays — we really killed it offensively.”
Cooper said Martin, who averages 150.6 yards per game, has a collarbone injury suffered in the regular-season finale win over Paso Robles, and he hopes to have him healthy “in a couple of weeks.”
“We know we have a stable of good running backs,” Cooper said. “We’ve had about five or six 100-yard rushes this year, and (Reusche) stepped up big.”
After Reusche scampered 46 yards untouched to put Atascadero ahead 41-34 early in the fourth, it appeared the Greyhounds finally had their first defensive stop of the half thanks to one of Teddy Rose’s three sacks.
But Cole Mueller muffed the punt, and the Lancers recovered on Atascadero’s 24-yard line. Five plays later, Gilliam went up and over the pile to score from 2 yards out — his fifth total touchdown of the game.
“We were just telling ourselves to keep at it,” Quigley said. “It was win or go home, so we just put it all on the line.”
Atascadero jumped out to a 14-0 lead, scoring on consecutive possessions before Thousand Oaks had a first down.
As expected, even with Martin sidelined, it was the ground game that got things going for the Greyhounds, who earned a share of the PAC 5 title and are the league’s top seed. Hicks opened the scoring from 15 yards out, and Reusche got his first of two first-half TDs on the next drive up the middle on second-and-goal from the 5.
But Gilliam brought the Lancers back.
He threw touchdown passes of 7, 60 and 10 yards in the first half, and also extended plays with his scrambles that in turn extended drives.
He wasn’t the only signal caller in the contest that could move, as Carr was quick to prove. The senior ran 10 times in the first half for 111 yards, including a 45-yard burst to the Thousand Oaks’ 26 with under a minute left in the half.
Carr took a QB draw 6 yards for a score for a 27-20 halftime lead.
Atascadero will either host Bishop Diego or travel to Antelope Valley for the second round next Friday.