MODESTO -- For nearly two quarters, Center quarterback Tyrel Anderson thrived in the cracks and crevasses of the Central Catholic defense.
The fast-action quarterback turned slivers of daylight into big gains, ripping off runs of 11 and 12 yards.
But then he picked the wrong alley, where he met an unforgiving bully in the shadows: Central Catholic's Blake Escobar, a hunt-you-down middle linebacker.
And with one stirring hit, Anderson lost his helmet, the ball and eventually his handle on Center's season.
"If you hit the guys, they're not going to want to keep running the ball. That's just how it is," Escobar said. "If you keep punishing him, he's going to start giving the ball to other people."
The moment defined the Raiders' 34-13 triumph on Friday evening, a victory that restores balance in the Sac-Joaquin Section football universe.
Central Catholic, the section's most decorated program with 15 titles in 17 finals appearances, will take on small-school wonder Escalon on Saturday afternoon at Lincoln High in Stockton.
The Raiders return to a section final for the first time since 2008, while the Cougars two years removed from a state championship take aim at their ninth title.
The game will feature no shortage of stars. There's a 2,000-yard running back (Escalon's Nathan Chunn), a tight end/defensive end headed to the University of Oregon (CC's John Mundt) and the "Ray and Rey Show" Central running backs Ray Lomas and Rey Vega.
But the tone-setter may be the one patrolling the gaps.
Escobar had two sacks on Friday evening, and commanded a defense that left Center's powder blue feeling black and blue.
Center scored just one offensive touchdown, turned the ball over three times and mustered just 3 yards in the third quarter as the Raiders bottled up Anderson and 2,000-yard running back D'Juan Bellairre.
"He's behind the scenes, for sure, but he's always working. Blake is so durable," Mundt said. "He's our middle linebacker, so he's taking hits all the time and he's a ground-and-pound kind of running back. He's a great instrument to use on offense and defense."
Coach Roger Canepa uses Escobar like a wrecking ball, tasking the 6-foot, 210-pounder with blowing up blocks and ball carriers.
His impact is measured not in TDs (4) or yards (180 total) or sacks (2), but tears.
They streamed from Anderson's eyes on Friday as he left the handshake line. Anderson tossed one interception and was sacked four times, including on back-to-back plays in the second quarter.
One drive later, he was sandwiched by Escobar and Jared Rice while trying to flee a collapsing pocket. The hit popped Anderson's helmet off and Escobar emerged from the collision with the quarterback's lunch money the ball.
Escobar held the pigskin aloft for some 2,000 to see, but the play was whistled dead.
"It's contagious. It just spreads. One guy gets a big hit and the energy just raises," Mundt said. "We're all swarming to the ball after that. It's a team defense."
The formula won't change much on Saturday against Chunn and the run-first Cougars. The Raiders will look to control the edges with Mundt (team-high 15½ sacks) and Matt Ringer (6½ sacks), funneling everything back to Escobar (75 tackles).
Chunn versus Escobar in the narrows of the line of scrimmage? That alone will be worth the price of admission.
"We're going to bring it right to our middle linebackers," Mundt said. "The way our defense is formed our D-line controls the gaps, we come off the edge and the run comes right at 'em."
Central's principle stars on offense shower Escobar with similar praise.
Lomas (1,650 yards, 26 TDs) and Vega (986/19) have been electric, spinning, juking and sprinting away from teams. On Friday, they topped 100 yards apiece for the fifth time this season.
"He opens the holes for us. When we do 'Blast' and he goes through the C gap, we're dependent on him," said Vega, on the cusp of a 1,000-yard season despite missing the first six games of the season because of a transfer rule.
"When he makes that block, everything opens up. He's a big factor for us."
Central Catholic has won nine straight games by 19 or more points and will play for a 16th section title.
"It's just a blessing to be back in the section (championship) game," Escobar said. "Five years, that's a long time for sitting out. We got to go back and show what we can do."