By CHRISTOPHER LAWLOR
PHOENIX – Chandler is raising the awareness that football in state of Arizona is serious business. For the second straight season, the Wolves, No. 22 in the USA TODAY Super 25 rankings, put on an offensive show in a high school bowl game.
This time it happened close to their East Valley home at Grand Canyon University Stadium much to the delight of the locals. The Wolves represented Arizona with pride and aplomb on Saturday night. They defeated an opponent from a traditional power recruiting state in this event again.
And for the second consecutive year, Jacob Conover quarterbacked the Wolves to victory at the GEICO State Champions Bowl Series presented by Sonic. Conover’s six touchdowns—five in the air and one on the ground—provided the spark in a 55-20 victory over Northwestern (Miami, Fla.) in a game televised nationally on ESPNU.
The Wolves sent a subtle message to the nation that Arizona football has arrived.
“We like to play a national schedule; we’ve played one for the last four years,” Chandler head coach Shaun Aguano said. “We want to get acknowledged for great football and we feel that we can play with anyone.”
Aguano isn’t kidding.
The hometown Wolves (13-2) dropped two of their first three games this campaign, but for the second consecutive season they finished on an 11-game win streak, which included a wild 49-42 victory over Perry (Gilbert) in the Arizona Conference 6A state championship. The high-octane offense registered 714 points, averaging 47.7 points per game, while scoring at least 40 points in 12 games and 50-plus eight times, including a season-high 77 during a playoff game in November.
“In my more than 20 years of coaching, this was the most enjoyable season. It’s been an incredible journey,” Aguano said.
It was a crowd-pleasing game that featured points, points and more points.
Chandler showed why they have a quick-strike offense—six scoring drives of five plays or less—and quarterback Chatarius “Tutu” Atwell of Northwestern showed why he is a dangerous player when has the ball.
“My job is to run the hurry-up offense and beat you with my legs,” said Atwell, who accounted for 388 total yards and ran for three long TDs.
Yet even Atwell couldn’t keep the Bulls close.
The Wolves took a 35-point lead (and the Mercy Rule when the clock runs) on the first play of the fourth quarter, when Conover hit Gunner Romney for 42 yards and his second TD pass of the half (and third overall).
“I’m going to miss playing with Jacob [Conover],” said Romney, who caught seven balls for 129 yards and two scores and had a rushing TD. “I just put up my hands and hits them.”
Conover showed why he is one of the nation’s top quarterbacks from the Class of 2019. For the second straight year he was named the game’s Most Valuable Player after completing 22 of 38 passes for 341 yards and five scores and rushed three times for 22 yards and his second running score of the season.
“Jacob [Conover] is a heckuva quarterback who plays with moxie, has a high IQ and is extremely accurate. He’s one of the best [QBs] in the nation,” Aguano said.
Last year in Chandler’s 44-24 win over Valdosta (Ga.) in the GEICO Bowl (played in Frisco, Texas) he turned in a 271-yard, three-TD night. The 6-feet-1-inch, 195-pounder, passed for 3,070 yards and 32 scores and only two interceptions this season.
“It’s not about offense or defense but we win and play as a family,” Conover said.
Ultimately the contest featured talented quarterbacks and offenses with different approaches. Northwestern, the big-play attack with Atwell under center and group of speedy athletes, while Chandler’s innovative offense the product of Aguano’s creativity.
“It was a long season and we had the players help design some of the trick plays we used tonight. We kept the last few weeks fun; it’s a great group to coach,” Aguano said.
Conover continued his brilliance matching the Bulls point for point. The poised signal-caller rifled a 12-yard TD to Romney for a 48-20 lead late in the third. Conover’s management skills were on display as Chandler went 94 yards in 11 plays in just over four minutes.
The second half started out with a bang as the Bulls received a pair of long TD runs from Atwell but still trailed 41-20. The Louisville signee blasted off in the third for scoring runs of 76 and 71 yards. By the end of the third, Atwell had rushed for 285 yards and three scores, averaging more than 20 yards a carry.
Conover and tight end Jarick Caldwell teamed up for two scoring connections in the first half, the second involved trickery and slick ball handing.
The result a 35-yard scoring strike to a wide-open Caldwell after Conover pulled off a double flea-flicker and a 34-7 lead at the break.
Conover showed he could beat you with his leg in the second quarter, sprinting 13 yards to make it, 20-7. The Wolves cashed in an interception for seven points less than two minutes later. Wide receiver Romney, who is considering BYU, took a flip toss from Conover and sped the final 13 yards for a 27-7 lead with 7:54 left in the half.
Junior Avery Carrington picked off a deflected pass and took it to the Bulls 43, setting up Romney’s rushing score.
Northwestern closed out the first quarter keeping its chance alive going 65 yards in six plays as Atwell scampered the final 45 yards reducing the deficit to six points, 13-7.
The Wolves scored on two of four drives in the first quarter for a 13-0 lead. Conover was brilliant in the first passing for 95 yards and a pair of scoring throws.
Conover capped a 71-yard march, flipping a 6-yard TD pass to Caldwell at 5:35 but the Wolves failed to convert the two-point conversion. Conover then added a second scoring toss from 6 yards to Brayden Liebrock with 2:53 left.
The Wolves entered the game without star running back Drake Anderson (5-11, 180) has battled hip injuries that kept him off the field for the last two seasons. The Northwestern Wildcats recruit rushed for 2,009 yards and 32 TDs on 218 attempts (9.2 yards per carry), but was a no-go on Saturday night with a broken hand.
Northwestern realized it ran into a buzz saw.
“They are a very good team,” Northwestern head coach Max Edwards said. “We enjoyed the experience coming here but not the final result. We didn’t play our best game but we achieved our goal by winning a state championship and that was very important to our community.”
Playing in what is widely considered one of the nation’ most difficult leagues or in the case a district, the Bulls (12-3) went 3-1 in District 5-6A to win the regular season title and a favorable seed in the Region 4 playoffs. Eventually the Bulls captured the Class 6A state championship, rallying to defeat unbeaten Armwood (Seffner, Fla.), 21-16, on Dec. 8. It was the program’s first state title since 2007.
As for the 2018 season, Edward did not mince his words.
“We’ll be ready for the GEICO State Champions Bowl Series. Yes we will,” he said.