ABBEVILLE — Vermilion Catholic had few answers for West St. John quarterback Austin Howard on Friday night.
The Screamin’ Eagles didn’t help themselves much, either, in their Class 1A quarterfinal playoff game, one which the visiting Rams controlled from the start on the way to a 41-20 victory.
Howard threw for two touchdowns in an efficient 15-of-21 performance for 232 yards, notching his eighth straight game without an interception. He also ran for a pair of scores on runs of two and seven yards, the second of which came on West St. John’s first possession of the second half and gave the Rams a commanding 34-7 lead.
“He’s the catalyst,” said Ram coach Robert Valdez, whose 9-3 team will travel to face Haynesville in next Friday’s semifinals. “To do what we do on offense, we give the quarterback the keys to the Cadillac and tell him to drive it.”
Howard had scoring passes of 39 and 14 yards in the first two quarters as the Rams scored on four of their first five possessions in the first half and added touchdowns on their first two series after halftime.
But even if the Ram junior had turned in a pedestrian effort, the host and third-seeded Eagles made enough self-inflicted mistakes to insure their 11-2 season would end one round earlier than last year. VC had lost to the same West St. John team 54-41 in last year’s Class 1A semifinals.
“They’ve got a lot of players,” said Eagle interim coach Russell Kuhns of the Rams, “but we missed on a lot of chances to do a lot of things. We missed some opportunities and they took advantage.”
One play epitomized the Eagles’ night, that one coming on VC’s first possession after West St. John drove 65 yards with the opening kickoff and senior Kylum Favorite scored from one yard out for an early 7-0 lead. The Eagles faced a fourth-and-two from mid field after coming up short on a third-down run, but had the “hideout” play perfectly set up out of punt formation — a wide-open receiver in front of the Eagle bench and no Ram defender within 20 yards.
But Joey Faulk’s fake-punt pass flew high and into the VC bench, giving the Rams possession at midfield, and after an exchange of punts Howard found a wide-open Timothy Nelson on the sideline for a 39-yard touchdown that made it 13-0.
VC’s Dustin Desormeaux returned the ensuing kickoff 81 yards for a touchdown to give the Eagles some hope, but the hosts didn’t score again until midway through the fourth quarter.
“They do some unconventional things,” Valdez said. “You’re always worried when you play a team like that, and they’ve been putting up a lot of points. They’re very explosive offensively, but it’s like they need to get in a rhythm and we were trying to take them out of that.”
VC quarterback Brennan Gallet was under constant pressure from the Ram defense, finishing up 10-of-21 for 112 yards after entering the game with 27 scoring passes this year. He did get one score, a 26-yard strike to Faulk in the right back corner of the end zone with 3:05 left to cut into a 41-13 deficit, but the Eagles never touched the ball again.
“We’d been down before,” Kuhns said. “We fought to the very end and didn’t give up, but they (WSJ) have a lot of very talented players.”
That talent showed one series after Desormeaux’s kickoff return, when Howard had an athletic plays that extended a drive that he capped with a two-yard run to make it 19-7. On fourth-and-15, he evaded the Eagle rush, threw across his body and found Nelson right on the sideline with a 17-yard rocket that gave West St. John a first down at the VC 17. He scored four plays later.
Then, after another Eagle special-teams mistake — punter Connor Menard mishandled a snap and ended up eating a 19-yard loss that gave the Rams the ball at the VC 20 — Howard hit Keith Miller with a 14-yard swing pass to make it 27-7 at halftime.
Two VC punts after halftime were converted into Ram scores, before the Eagles finally got an offensive score with 6:02 left on Michael Campbell’s eight-yard run. A short punt set up the Gallet-to-Faulk touchdown three minutes later, but that was as close as VC would get.
“We knew we needed to start fast,” Valdez said. “With the travel and the environment, we needed to get after them early. It wasn’t pretty sometimes, but we’ll take it.”