PUYALLUP — Ray Pimentel was swarmed on every rushing attempt.
Kyler Gordon had no space to showcase his next-level speed and elusiveness.
And sophomore quarterback Victor Gabalis faced heavy pressure throughout.
The Archbishop Murphy football team couldn’t muster much of anything against Tumwater’s suffocating defense.
Tumwater shut out the Wildcats’ explosive offense and squashed the defending champions’ bid for a repeat, advancing to the Class 2A state title game with a 10-6 semifinal win over Archbishop Murphy in a defensive slugfest Saturday afternoon at Sparks Stadium.
“We knew going in (that) their front four was a pretty dominant force,” Wildcats coach Jerry Jensen said of Tumwater’s defensive front. “We just couldn’t get a man on a man and get any room in the run game. And when we can’t run the ball, it makes it hard for our offense.
“Credit to (Tumwater). They played a great game today.”
Archbishop Murphy (11-2) entered the semifinal contest averaging 42.8 points per game, but struggled mightily against the Thunderbirds.
Tumwater (11-2) limited Archbishop Murphy’s high-scoring offense to just 66 total yards and 1.7 yards per play, including a mere seven total yards in the first half. The Wildcats finished with minus-14 rushing yards — 30 yards on 13 carries and minus-44 yards on seven sacks.
Archbishop Murphy senior running back Ben Hines said Tumwater caused confusion by dialing up a variety of blitzes.
“We didn’t know what was going on,” Hines said. “They were shifting linemen all over the place. They were lining up four guys on one side and no one on the other side of the (defensive) line, and we wouldn’t have time to adjust to it.
“They just ran a really, really good blitz package.”
Archbishop Murphy’s defense did its best to keep the Wildcats in the game, holding Tumwater to 206 total yards and recovering four fumbles. But Archbishop Murphy’s offense never reached the end zone, let alone the red zone.
Hines provided the Wildcats’ lone score with a 12-yard fumble return in the third quarter.
“They played lights-out,” Jensen said of his team’s defense. “They flew around, they created turnovers, they gave the offense every opportunity to go down and score. And we just couldn’t put it in.”
Pimentel entered the contest averaging 174 rushing yards per game and 10.4 yards per carry, but was held by Tumwater to minus-5 yards on six attempts.
Gordon came in averaging 20.5 yards per offensive touch as an electrifying receiver and ball-carrier. But the Thunderbirds held the big-time college recruit to minus-6 yards on five touches.
Unable to establish a running game, Archbishop Murphy abandoned its ground attack in the second half and took several deep shots downfield. But Tumwater’s secondary provided tight coverage and Gabalis struggled to connect under heavy pressure from the Thunderbirds’ defensive front, completing just 8 of 20 passes for 80 yards.
Aside from a 47-yard fourth-quarter completion to junior receiver Dillon Halpin, the Wildcats totaled just 19 yards on their other 39 offensive plays.
“(Tumwater) played faster and harder than we did up front today,” Jensen said. “And when you can’t establish the run, it’s going to be a long day. The line of scrimmage wins football games.”
Sophomore running back Dylan Paine led Tumwater’s Wing-T rushing attack with 134 yards on 32 carries, including 111 yards on 24 second-half attempts.
After a scoreless first half for both teams, the Thunderbirds strip-sacked Gabalis in the third quarter and recovered on the Archbishop Murphy 34-yard line.
Tumwater followed with a nine-play scoring drive, kept alive by Paine’s 2-yard run on 4th-and-1. Two plays later, senior Connor Clark rushed up the middle for the game’s first score, a 5-yard touchdown run that gave the Thunderbirds a 7-0 lead midway through the third quarter.
Later in the third, Hines stripped the ball from Paine and returned it for a 12-yard touchdown with less than three minutes to play in the quarter. The Wildcats trailed 7-6 after missing the extra-point attempt wide-left.
Tumwater answered by returning the ensuing kickoff to the Archbishop Murphy 42. The Thunderbirds then drove to the Wildcats’ 15, and senior Nathan Seaman pushed Tumwater’s lead to 10-6 with a 32-yard field goal on the opening play of the fourth quarter.
Gabalis connected with Halpin for a 47-yard completion with seven minutes to play, moving the ball to the Tumwater 33. However, an illegal block on the next play pushed the ball back 18 yards.
The Wildcats gained back the penalty yardage to set up 4th-and-7 from the Tumwater 30. But a slant pass to Gordon on the ensuing play came up one yard short of the first-down line, handing the ball back to Tumwater with five minutes remaining.
The Thunderbirds then churned out two first downs and ran down the clock to under a minute before punting back to Archbishop Murphy.
Taking over on their own 19 with 43 seconds to play and no timeouts, the Wildcats began their last-gasp drive with a pair of incompletions. Tumwater then came up with a third-down sack, pushing Archbishop Murphy into 4th-and-19 from its own 10.
As the clock ticked down into the game’s final seconds, Gabalis tossed a desperation heave downfield. The pass fell incomplete, sending Tumwater’s team storming onto the field in celebration.
Saturday’s semifinal showdown marked the third consecutive season — and sixth time in eight years — that Archbishop Murphy and Tumwater have met in the state playoffs.
After the Thunderbirds ended Archbishop Murphy’s 2015 season with a 24-21 semifinal win, the Wildcats returned the favor last year with a 48-10 quarterfinal victory en route to their first-ever 2A state title.
But Tumwater got revenge Saturday and earned a spot in next week’s state championship game against Hockinson, which advanced with a 53-30 win over West Valley (Spokane) in the other semifinal.
“It’s been a four-year journey for these seniors,” Jensen said of his Wildcats. “They’ve seen a lot in their time, and they need to be proud of what they have accomplished.
“This is going to sting for a little while. But when they look back on their season eventually, hopefully they have some good memories.”