EVERETT — Sure, the Archbishop Murphy football team lost a bevy of starpower from last year’s ultra-talented squad that steamrolled to the state title.
But with television cameras on hand for Thursday’s season opener, the defending Class 2A state champions wasted no time making a statement that this year’s Wildcats are still a mighty force.
Archbishop Murphy raced to a 21-point first-quarter lead and forced six turnovers on defense, paving the way for a 37-18 non-league win over Garfield in a season-opening showdown that was televised on ROOT Sports.
“We just wanted to come out hard and fast and strong, and give them no hope to win the game at all,” said Murphy star senior Kyler Gordon, an elite two-way college prospect who scored a pair of touchdowns and had an interception. “Just push down, go as fast as we can and do what we do.”
Debuting flashy gray uniforms with shiny silver numbers, the Wildcats were full-throttle from the opening kickoff, scoring touchdowns on each of their first three possessions against a Garfield team that reached the 3A district playoffs last year.
Murphy senior running back Ray Pimentel quickly set the tone, rushing for gains of 17 and 14 yards on the Wildcats’ first two plays from scrimmage.
Gordon, who is taking an official visit to the University of Notre Dame this weekend, capped the opening drive three plays later on a third-down wide-receiver screen pass that he took 18 yards for a touchdown.
Then after Murphy’s defense came up with a stop, senior Joey Groves blocked a punt to set up first-and-goal for the Wildcats. On the ensuing play, Gordon lined up in the backfield and showcased some shifty footwork on an 8-yard touchdown run that gave the Wildcats a 14-0 lead less than five minutes into the game.
Pimentel then capped Murphy’s next possession with an 4-yard touchdown run that extended the lead to 21-0 late in the first quarter.
“I’m really happy with how we came out,” Wildcats coach Jerry Jensen said. “We came out strong (and) we came out fast.”
Murphy forced four first-half turnovers, including a touchdown-saving forced fumble by standout senior linebacker Ben Hines. With Garfield senior and University of Oregon commit Tre’Shaun Harrison angling toward the left plyon in the second quarter, Hines jarred the ball free and sent it trickling out of the end zone for a touchback to keep it 21-0.
“That’s what Ben does,” Gordon said. “Ben is an amazing athlete. He should be getting looked at more (by colleges). He’s a big piece on our whole team — offense and defense. … That play was amazing. That’s what he does.”
Murphy was on the verge of extending its lead when Garfield defensive lineman Sav’ell Smalls intercepted a third-and-goal screen pass from sophomore quarterback Victor Gabalis. A penalty on the play negated what would’ve been a 95-yard interception-return touchdown, but Garfield got on the board five plays later with a 51-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Colby Burton to Harrison.
Despite their strong start and 37-point performance, the Wildcats’ offense totaled just 258 yards and committed three turnovers.
“We’ve got some young kids and we made some mistakes,” Jensen said. “And we need to learn how to put those teams away, because a team like Garfield with that many athletes — you give them life and they stick around, and that’s when bad things happen.
“So we’ve got to learn to find that killer instinct and put teams away. But I’m pretty happy for week one.”
Murphy pulled away in the third quarter with touchdowns on its first two drives of the second half.
Gabalis connected with senior receiver Rwehabura Munyagi for a 36-yard completion on the Wildcats’ first possession of the third quarter, setting up a rumbling 12-yard touchdown run by Hines. Later in the third, Pimentel weaved his way for a 7-yard scoring run that extended the margin to 34-6.
Murphy held a 37-6 fourth-quarter lead until Garfield scored two late touchdowns against the Wildcats’ backups.
Burton completed 19 of 29 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns, but was intercepted three times by Murphy. Munyagi, Gordon and senior Ryan Schroeder each had an interception for the Wildcats.
“Defense is something we take pride in, and turnovers are a big thing,” Gordon said. “We love turnovers.”
The star-studded season-opening matchup featured five of the top 45 senior prospects in the state, according to Scout.com. That doesn’t include Smalls, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound sophomore who already has an offer from the University of Alabama.
Harrison finished with seven receptions for 122 yards and two touchdowns for the Bulldogs. Garfield senior receiver Mekhi Metcalf, another Division-I prospect, had seven catches for 120 yards.
“(They’re) a good opponent,” Jensen said of Garfield. “We knew that they were coming in here with some athletes, and they showed that tonight.
“Neither team was as clean as they probably would like to be. But at the end of the day, I’m pretty proud of how our boys played tonight.”
Players from both teams lined up in alternating fashion during the national anthem, interlocking hands with one another and raising them upward in a show of unison.
“You have an inner-city school coming up north, and I think that just shows in society, you know, let’s just come together,” Jensen said. “Let’s just come together and work on the issues together and all be friends. Life’s too short to battle all the time.”