PALMER — For all its vaunted offense — 40 or more points in its previous four games and six of its eight regular-season games — defense propelled Palmer High into the large-school football semifinals.
That seemed fitting on a Friday night when relentless rain and buffeting winds combined with standing water on the artificial turf at Fred Machetanz Field to mitigate passing and make conditions better suited to hydroplane racing than high school football.
Top-ranked and unbeaten Palmer in the second half limited East to a mere 27 yards total offense on 21 plays from scrimmage to earn a 13-6 quarterfinal victory.
That stifling defense — granted, aided by East mistakes — combined with the ground-control offense the Moose (9-0) lacked in the first half to spur the Railbelt Conference champions.
“We came out prepared and did our job,’’ said Palmer linebacker Benjamin Aumavae. “I think we were taking plays off in the first half. The second half, we came out prepared and punched them in the mouth.’’
The Thunderbirds (5-4), the No. 4 seed from the Cook Inlet Conference, struggled on their four scoreless possessions in the second half.
Their first drive began with a snap over the head of quarterback Jesse Vanilau, who was operating out of the shotgun, and resulted in a loss of 17 yards on the way to a three-and-out. The second possession of six plays featured a wide-receiver screen pass for a loss of seven yards on third-and-13, prompting a punt. Vanilau fumbled on the second play of the third possession, when he ran the option left, was leveled by Aumavae and coughed up a fumble recovered by Moose linebacker Chris Cooney. East’s fourth and final possession of the half stalled near midfield when Vanilau’s scramble on fourth-and-11 netted just three yards.
“Defensively, I thought we had ’em bottled up for the most part,’’ said Palmer coach Rod Christiansen, who has guided the Moose to 13 straight playoff appearances. “I saw we could play with them, speed-wise. We bent, but we didn’t break too much, and that was the difference.’’
In all, the Moose, who in the semis will face the winner of Saturday’s West Valley-South game, limited the T-birds to 194 yards offense.
The weather also put a crimp in East’s passing game. They got the ball to standout receiver Jarred Laws five times on passes, but four of those were screens that didn’t amount to much because the Moose got to the usually-elusive Laws before he could get into the secondary. He was limited to 14 receiving yards.
“The weather didn’t help; it hurt us for sure,’’ said East coach Jeff Trotter. “Coming in, we looked at the rain and said, 'This is going to come down to mistakes,’ and we made them.’’
On its game-opening drive, for instance, East marched from its 37-yard line to the Palmer 25 in 10 plays before a T-bird offensive pass interference penalty and fumbled snap turned the ball over on downs.
Palmer responded lickety-split — James Nisbett raced 51 yards on the first play from scrimmage and two plays later scored on a 5-yard run to give the Moose a 6-0 lead.
East forged a 6-6 tie midway through the second quarter when it gained great field position — the Palmer 37 — after a short Palmer punt. Jakeil Bell scored on a 2-yard run.
Even though the game was still tied at halftime, the T-birds carried play in the first half, running 33 plays to Palmer’s 20 and dominating time of possession, 16 minutes, 41 seconds to Palmer’s 7:19.
Palmer reversed roles in the second half, running 33 plays to East’s 21 and winning the time of possession game, 15:34 to 8:26.
With Nisbett trying to loosen a tight thigh at halftime and into the third quarter — he nonetheless gained a game-high 141 yards on 16 carries — the Moose took the second-half kickoff and marched 66 yards on 11 plays that gobbled 5:25 off the clock. Vincent Aumavae carried the ball seven times on the drive and gained 35 yards, and Luke Heun scored on a 1-yard run. Nathan Pempek’s extra-point gave Palmer a 13-6 edge.
“They drove it down our throats,’’ Trotter said.
After that, Palmer delivered another drive that didn’t result in points, but killed 6:41 off the clock. And East never again crossed midfield.
“The defense played well, and our offense kept it close enough to the vest and took care of the ball enough to get it done,’’ Christiansen said.
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East 0 6 0 0 — 6
Palmer 6 0 7 0 — 13
Palmer — Nisbett 5 run (run failed), 4:48.
East — Bell 2 run (kick failed), 6:55.
Palmer — Heun 1 run (Pempek kick), 6:35.
First downs 12 11
Rushes-yards 37-161 43-233
Passing yards 33 0
Return yards 12 31
Passes 9-17-0 0-10-0
Punts 3-27.4 3-29.0
Fumbles-lost 5-2 2-1
Penalties-yards 5-45 4-35
RUSHING — East: Su’a T’eo 7-75, Vanilau 17-54, Bell 5-13, Jones 3-9, Laws 2-5, Atiifale 3-5. Palmer: Nisbett 16-141, Aumavae 13-48, Heun 6-30, Christiansen 8-11, Myers 1-3
PASSING — East: Vanilau 6-18-0—23, Bell 1-1-0--10. Palmer: Christiansen 0-10-0--0.
RECEIVING — East: Laws 5-14, Luafulu 2-14, Bell 2-5. Palmer: None.