EVERETT — Every time the Archbishop Murphy Wildcats thought they’d gotten back into the game, Braeden Smith did something spectacular to shove the Wildcats back down into the hole.
The Seattle Prep senior may be the Panthers’ quarterback, but he did all the damage with his legs, scoring four touchdowns — three of which were 50 yards or longer — as the Wildcats fell 41-18 Friday night in their non-league football opener at Archbishop Murphy High School.
In a game that pitted a Seattle Prep team ranked No, 2 in the Associated Press’ preseason 3A state poll against an Archbishop Murphy one ranked No. 9 in 2A, the Wildcats actually controlled the ball for much of the game, running twice as many offensive plays in the first half as the Panthers and converting 21 first downs overall versus Seattle Prep’s 14.
But just about every time Smith decided to take off with the ball he produced something special and wound up in the end zone. His scores included two rushing touchdowns, one of which was 83 yards; a 50-yard punt return for a touchdown; and he capped it off with a 99-yard kickoff return for a TD which he originally thought was a touchback.
“He’s a phenomenal athlete,” Archbishop Murphy coach Josh Jansen said about Smith. “That’s a great football team and they were the better team on the field tonight. But there are a lot of things that are in our control to fix and get better, and that’s the main thing. We have to improve each week, and this doesn’t change our goal of trying to win a Northwest Conference title or making a run at a 2A state title. This was a good litmus test, we know we have to get better.”
All four of Smith’s touchdowns came with either the score tied or the Wildcats within one score, proving to be backbreakers for Archbishop Murphy. And his answer as to why he was able to break off so many long runs was simple:
“Just not trying to get tackled,” Smith said with a chuckle. “I don’t like getting tackled, so I just run faster than anybody else and try to get into the end zone.
“It was super fun to be back out here in this atmosphere with all these fans,” Smith added. “It was good competing against another team. We came out, had some adversity in the first half, we regrouped in the second half, came out strong, continued to fight and were able to pull out a pretty big victory.”
The Wildcats appeared to tire as the game progressed, with several players having to come off the field because of cramps, and Seattle Prep turned what was a close game into a blowout by scoring 21 straight points before Archbishop Murphy scored a consolation touchdown with 4.2 seconds remaining.
Smith finished with 107 yards rushing on nine carries, and he also completed 8 of 16 passes for 113 yards. Bill Vaouli added 86 yards on five carries for Seattle Prep and scored one touchdown.
Quarterback Kai Lewis led the attack for Archbishop Murphy, going 12-for-26 passing for 102 yards and two touchdowns, and he also scored a TD on a quarterback sneak. Christian Ayson added 81 yards rushing on 24 carries for the Wildcats.
Following a scoreless first quarter, Smith gave the Panthers the initiative by scoring twice on electric runs during a span of 2 minutes, 38 seconds in the second quarter. First, Smith kept the ball on a quarterback counter, made a pair of stutter-step moves to free himself on the left, then split two more defenders as he raced 83 yards to give the Panthers a 7-0 lead. Then after an Archbishop Murphy three-and-out, Smith fielded a bouncing punt, found a seam down the middle, and sprinted through the coverage to make it 14-0.
It was a stunning set of events for the Wildcats, but a tip-drill interception by Jelani Guerrero gave Archbishop Murphy an opening in Panther territory late in the second quarter. The Wildcats needed just two plays before Kai Lewis hit Tyreek Curley on a 19-yard slant pattern. The Panthers blocked the extra-point attempt, and at halftime Seattle Prep led 14-6.
Smith wasted little time getting back into the groove in the second half, scampering in on a 9-yard quarterback keeper just 1:42 into the third quarter to make it 20-6.
Archbishop Murphy again answered, embarking on a 15-play, 56-yard drive that was driven almost exclusively by no-nonsense run plays, capped off by Lewis’ 2-yard plunge to again bring the Wildcats within one score at 20-12.
But on the ensuing kickoff Smith caught the ball nonchalantly at the goal line, thinking the play would be blown dead for a touchback. After a moment of hesitation, he realized no whistle had been blown and took off, weaving his way through the coverage for a 99-yard touchdown, from which the Wildcats never recovered.