CONNELL — The defenses for Connell and Royal spent the greater part of an SCAC East rumble here Friday treating ballcarriers the way Pete Carroll treats chewing gum.
Prying open a lead required alternatives to smashmouth football.
Enter Connell senior quarterback Austin Forsyth, who helped the Eagles bypass the trench gridlock, build a lead and grind out a 28-0 victory.
Playing in what will likely be his only Connell-Royal rivalry game, the Hanford transfer was 8-of-14 passing for 105 yards and a touchdown in the first half, when neither D would budge at the point of attack. Forsyth kept key drives breathing by completing all four of his third-down passing attempts, each of which converted a first down.
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"That's the best he's played all season," said Eagles wide receiver Gage Taylor.
"Yeah," added Eagles coach Wayne Riner. "It was."
Connell (5-2, 4-0 in league) will need the full arsenal -- Forsyth's efficiency, the methodical run game which finally subdued Royal down the fourth-quarter stretch, a physical and opportunistic defense -- next Friday when it visits fourth-ranked River View for a game that will likely decide the division title.
The win Friday was Connell's fifth straight, and although Riner enthused afterward that he could not recall shutting Royal out in his 20 years at the school, he knew it had not come easily. Connell rushed for 207 yards -- solid, especially against a rival -- but did not have a carry of eight yards or greater until Forsyth's 10-yard scramble on a critical drive bridging the third and fourth quarters, when the Eagles led only 14-0.
Sledgehammer tailback Gunner Vanderbilt finished with 137 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 28 carries, but didn't break a run of more than eight yards until his 24th touch of the night -- and had 55 yards on his final four carries.
Royal made the Eagles work -- and improvise.
The signature moment for Forsyth came early in the second quarter. Connell led 7-0 on the strength of Forsyth's 7-yard touchown pass to Andrew Plake when it began a drive at its own 20. On 3rd-and-12 from his 34, Forsyth rolled right and connected with Taylor for a 29-yard gain on a back-shoulder fade along the sideline.
Vanderbilt would cap the rejuvenated drive eight plays later with a 5-yard touchdown run.
"It was great to get some stuff going a little bit on offense," said Taylor, who had five receptions for 80 yards, plus a sack and two pass deflections from his post at defensive end.
Although it struggled at times to corrall Royal running back Miguel Ayala in the first half, Connell's defense compensated with timely, momentum-igniting work.
The Eagles forced Knights punter Jose Ponce to tuck the ball and run (he appeared to decide -- correctly -- that his punt would be blocked) on a fourth down play, resulting in short field position and setting up Connell's first touchdown.
Defensive tackle Kelton Syrie gobbled up Gerard Weyns for a one-yard loss on 4th-and-1 from the Eagles' 19 to earn the possession featuring the Forsyth-to-Taylor 29-yarder and Vanderbilt score.
Robert Clawson intercepted Royal's precocious freshman quarterback, Kaden Jenks, to cancel a Knights march near midfield, deflecting the ball with one hand and then cradling it with two as he crashed to the ground.
And Taylor prevented any Hail Mary chicanery by sacking Jenks on the final play of the first half.
"Our defense plays like that every night," Forsyth said. "They play lock-down D."
Royal mounted its best drive of the game on the first possession after halftime, marching to the Connell 21. But on second-and-7, Jacob Jenks wrestled the ball away from a temporarily-wide open Ponce in the end zone for a spectacular, shutout-preserving interception.
"Big play. That interception was as good as it gets," Riner raved. "I'm going to by him a pizza all by himself."
The third quarter was played to a scoreless draw, which did Royal no favors. Perhaps capitalizing on an ever-increasing advantage in time of possession and offensive snaps, Connell's natural identity emerged to put the game away in the fourth. A pair of completions, a 10-yard scamper by Forsyth and more gritty, between-the-tackles running by Vanderbilt anchored a 10-play, 57-yard scoring drive capped by Raul Gomez's 11-yard TD run at the 10:12 mark of the fourth quarter.
Vanderbilt's six-yard run with 1:01 to go was the cherry on top.
In the game, Connell ran 66 plays to Royal's 52 and had the ball for 32 minutes, 25 seconds to the Knights' 15:10. In what Taylor described as "one off the most physical games of the season," Connell eventually imposed its will.
"Give credit to the boys, they played hard," Riner said. "We did wear 'em down a little bit."
But not before Forsyth aired 'em out, first.
"It wasn't so much me as it was my line and my wide receivers," said Forsyth. "I definitely feel comfortable throwing the ball to any of my receivers. I definitely have faith in them."
In the prologue to a league title game, Forsyth assured that the faith is mutual.
Royal (4-3, 2-2) still has the inside track for the SCAC East's third and final playoff berth, although that entails a crossover visit to top-ranked Zillah. The Knights host Columbia-Burbank Friday.
Royal 0 0 0 0 — 0
Connell 7 7 0 14 — 28
C -- Andrew Plake 7 pass from Austin Forsyth (PAT kick), 3:10
C -- Gunner Vanderbilt 5 run (PAT kick), 4:45
C -- Raul Gomez 11 run (PAT kick), 10:12
C -- Vanderbilt 6 run (PAT kick), 1:01
RUSHING—Royal: Ayala 16-92, Weyns 5-15, Ponce 1-2, K. Jenks 3-(-16). Connell: Vanderbilt 28-137, Gomez 7-34, Forsyth 9-36.
PASSING—Royal: K. Jenks 13-22, 126, two INTs. Connell: Forsyth 12-20, 147, INT, TD.
RECEIVING—Royal: Ponce 5-59, Allred 1-10, Garcia 5-37, Ayala 2-20. Connell: Taylor 5-80, Plake 5-51, J. Jenks 2-17, Merrill 1-12.