With the football season winding down, every game is critical. Petaluma and Tomales face almost must-win games against mammoth opponents this week just to keep their playoff hopes flickering, while Casa Grande and St. Vincent must beware slips as they look forward to their own big challenges still a week down the road.

Petaluma's Trojans, still harboring North Coast Section playoff hopes, will take their break-even record to Sebastopol to face Analy's mighty Tigers, the No. 2-ranked large school in the Redwood Empire. The Tigers are 8-1 on the season, and will be looking to complete a perfect Sonoma County League season after winning their first six straight league games.

Tomales' Braves, coming off a tough 18-14 loss to St. Vincent last week, are 5-3 but just 2-2 in the North Central II/Bay Football League as they travel to Calistoga to meet the unbeaten (7-0 overall, 4-0 league) Wildcats.

Casa Grande's Gauchos, already with the longest regular-season winning streak in school history, hope to take another step toward an undefeated regular season when they host Windsor Friday night. The Gauchos must beware looking past the 4-4 (2-3 NBL) Jaguars toward a final game showdown against powerhouse cardinal Newman.

St. Vincent also must be careful of looking too far ahead as it hosts Upper Lake Saturday afternoon. The win over Tomales last week gave the 5-2 (3-1 in the NCL II/Bay Football League) Mustangs not only playoff hopes, but hopes of a share of the league championship if they can topple unbeaten Calistoga the following week, but a win over the Wildcats won't mean much if they slip against Upper Lake's winless Cougars.

Tigers growling

Petaluma's Trojans march into the Tigers' den in Sebastopol knowing full well they are taking on one of the top teams in the Redwood Empire and perhaps in the North Coast Section. Petaluma coach Rick Krist says his team's best defense against the explosive Tigers may well be its offense. "Hopefully we will be able to keep the ball away from them," he explained. "The key for us will be time of possession."

A major factor in Petaluma's success in maintaining ball control will be he continued strong play of its offensive line, a group that is coming into its own after a nearly complete season of learning and rearranging. Anchored by center Chris Remple, the Trojan front of Justin Mahrt and Travis Plank at guards, Nick McCloskey and Joey Reed at tackles and Hunter Williams at tight end, has pushed hard enough to allow the Trojans to score 112 points in its last two games, with the offense being generated almost exclusively on the ground.

A big part of the recent line success has been the willingness of senior Kevin Crudo to switch from running back to line to provide desperately needed depth for players who generally work on both sides of scrimmage.

If the line continues to perform well, the Trojans have the potential to generate offense even against the big and tough Tiger defenders with quarterback Patrick Bailey complementing speedster Gabe Medina and junior Yusef Kawasmi, who has added even more speed to the Petaluma backfield. He became eligible three games ago after setting out the first half of the season because of transfer rules.

But Krist knows the Tigers will be tough.

Analy's offensive game is to run swift backs Ja'Narrick James and Alishua Johnson behind its big line. Both average nearly eight yards a carry, although James gets the majority of the work. He has gained 556 yards and scored 14 rushing touchdowns this season. Junior quarterback Will Smith provides a solid aerial balance to the Analy attack with 64 completions in 98 attempts for 888 yards and 13 touchdowns with just two interceptions.

Defensively, the Tigers have given up just four touchdowns in their five league games, with two of those scored by Sonoma Valley in a 44-14 Analy blowout win. Key defenders are linebacker TJ Acheson, down lineman Jaxon Cantu and defensive back Kieran Newell.

No slip allowed

Casa Grande's Gauchos can ill afford a slip at home as they continue their drive for an undefeated season. The Gauchos did an excellent job of not overlooking Ukiah last week, although it did take an impressive opening drive by the Wildcats to wake the Gauchos up. But, by halftime, Casa Grande was already going to its bench.

The same focus will be needed this week as Casa hosts a Windsor team that can be dangerous despite its record. After losing its first two NBL games to Rancho Cotate, 43-14, and Maria Carrillo, 21-14, the Jaguars exploded offensively for a 37-14 win over Ukiah and a 59-19 victory over Santa Rosa. Even in last week's 44-27 loss to Cardinal Newman, they scored four touchdowns.

Christian Roberge ran for 177 yards on a workhorse 24 carries against the Cardinals, and will be an offensive weapon the Gauchos will have to contend with Friday night, as will quarterback Colin McAlvain and running back Dimitri Atkins, who scored three touchdowns against the Cardinals.

SV Homecoming

St. Vincent will celebrate its delayed homecoming with its game against Upper Lake. Kickoff is at 2 p.m. The Mustangs were to have held homecoming three weeks ago, but their competition, Livermore Valley Prep, cancelled out on them, and then they went on the road for two weeks. They are home now, and need to beware slipping up as they sandwich the Cougars between their two big games with Tomales and Calistoga.

St. Vincent has built much of its success on outstanding defense led by Murphy, linebacker Zach Stichler and down lineman Danny Rodriguez.

Big game: Part Two

It doesn't carry the emotional impact of the St. Vincent game, but for Tomales' Braves Friday night's game in Calistoga might be even bigger. On the bubble of earning a North Coast Section playoff spot, the Braves could make a big statement with a win over the unbeaten Wildcats. A loss would pretty much end their playoff hopes.

Beating Calistoga won't be easy. The Wildcats have their entire community excited with their best team in years. Led by senior Dylan Alvarado, who has already run for 1,539 yards and 21 touchdowns, Calistoga is averaging better than 330 rushing yards per game.

Tomales, as it always does, will try to stop the Wildcats by denying them the football, trying to put together long drives behind the rushing of Anthony Feliciano and Willy Lepori. The strategy worked to a point last week against St. Vincent, but was foiled by mistakes in the final quarter.