Avondale Westview received (or made, depending on your point of view) a huge break with less than four minutes left in the showdown of 5A-II's top two teams with Centennial.
Trailing 14-0 with the ball on the Centennial 11, Westview junior quarterback Jourdon Grandon attempted to gun a second-down pass through the middle. It was tipped by a rusher and snagged with surprising grace by 250-pound senior defensive tackle Juan Ramos.
In a prolonged scrum, Westview sophomore lineman Brennan Bowen wrestled the ball away. After huddling, officials determined Bowen gained possession of the ball before the whistle was blown, resulting in a fresh set of downs for the Knights at the Centennial 16 and more than a few blown gaskets on the Coyotes sideline and visiting stands.
"(The referees) told me the pile was still moving," Centennial coach Dick Taylor said. "I just think that when you have 10 big guys in there fighting for the ball like pigs in a trough, it's best to blow the whistle before anybody gets hurt."
Instead of providing Westview momentum for a late comeback, the double turnover sent the Centennial defense — stout all game save for three big pass plays — into overdrive.
Junior nose guard Dylan Lusk sacked Grandon on first down for a nine-yard loss. On second down senior defensive end Josh Bell dropped Grandon for a 10-yard sack. Penalties for delay of game and a false start left Westview with a third down and 34 from the 40 yard line. Not satisfied with that, senior defensive end Jimmie Lewis and senior defensive tackle Jack Ramsey teamed up on another sack, leaving Westview 39 yards away from a first down and essentially ending the game.
"It just got real intense and we knew we had to play harder and keep the shutout," Lewis said.
Before the wild game-ending sequence, Centennial (8-0, 3-0 Desert West Region) seized control with big plays on both sides of the ball late in the third quarter.
Trying to erase a 6-0 deficit, Westview (7-1, 2-1 Desert West) attempted a deep halfback pass by senior R.J. Robinson. Junior free safety Anthony Hughes had it covered, easily picking off and returning the ball deep into Westview territory.
A chop block penalty on the return pushed Centennial back to its own 42. Two plays later, junior wideout Sean Dumdie got behind the defense on a deep post pattern and junior quarterback Dain McFarland hit him in stride for a 53-yard touchdown.
"He saw no one on me over the middle and made a good throw," Dumdie said.
On the ensuing two-point conversion, McFarland threw to a spot where two receivers converged in the corner of the end zone. Junior fullback Alex Arias held on, giving the Coyotes their winning margin.
Westview's next posession was short circuited by a penalty and a sack by Lewis and junior linebacker Austin Garady. A 31-yard dash by senior tailback John Hughes put the Coyotes in position to ice the game.
On first and goal, McFarland's apparent touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Justin Callahan was wiped out by a holding penalty. Working their way back withing striking distance, Centennial faced third-and-goal from the 12. McFarland threw into zone coverage and Westview junior linebacker Eric Ramsey made the interception at the goal line.
Back in the game after Ramsey returned the pick to the 15, the Knights embarked on their lone sustained drive of the night. Grandon dashed for 11 yards and a late hit tacked on 15 more. Grandon connected with Ramsey — who also plays tight end — on a 29-yard pass. He then hit senior fullback Joe Lauer for 13 yards and was hit late again, this time by a Centennial pass rusher.
Shortly thereafter came the interception/fumble and the avalanche of sacks and penalties that buried the Knights.
"We had our chances. We didn't execute," Westview coach Jeff Bowen said.
The home team's other golden opportunity came on the opening drive of the second half. Sophomore tailback Carlton Williams split out wide and raced past the defense, hauling in Grandon's bomb and sprinting down the sideline to the Centennial 11. Williams also caught a 22-yard pass on the Knights' only first-half drive into Centennial territory.
Faced with a third-and-seven from the Centennial 8, Grandon called his own number, but was dragged down by Lewis before he could get out of the backfield. Senior Stephen Szostek missed a 27-yard field goal on the next play.
While there were a couple of breakdowns in pass coverage, Centennial shut down the heart of Westview's normally dominant read option offense. Robinson was limited to 10 yards on eight carries and Williams rushed for 20 yards on only five carries.
"We've been known to have great defenses and we just want to hold it down as seniors and keep the tradition going while showing the younger players what we do," Lewis said.
Instead of relying on their tailbacks as they've done most of the year, the Knights went with a heavy dose of Grandon, who carried the ball 14 times for 76 yards (excluding sacks), and light dose of heavy senior lineman Terry Williams. The 285-pounder lined up as a fullback and surprised the Coyotes on a 11-yard first-half rumble. Westview tried the big man twice more in the second half, but each carry only produced a yard.
In contrast, Centennial's offense, as always, started with the Hughes brothers. On the game's second play Anthony Hughes took a shotgun draw and got the corner, dashing 31 yards down the sideline. Anthony finished with 82 yards on eight carries, while John led the way with 117 yards on 12 carries.
While the Coyotes were able to run consistently, what they did after Anthony Hughes' opening jaunt was a microcosm of a frustrating first half.
Centennial moved to the 5, but was stoned on third down. Senior kicker Ryan Shauger hit a 21-yard field goal to stake a 3-0 lead.
Their next drive began at Westview's 26 after a long punt return by John Hughes. Junior cornerback Nathan McOwen intercepted McFarland's third-down pass in the corner of the end zone.
"I yelled so hard (in the first half) that I hurt my back," Taylor said.
McFarland led a quick scoring drive at the end of the half, missing a touchdown pass to Callahan just outside the end zone. Shauger drilled a 26-yard field goal before a second before halftime.
The first half was mostly a feeling out process and breezed by. The second have featured flags on many plays, harder hitting and a clearer picture of the rivalry Centennial-Westview has become.
Westview has pointed to this game since losing 20-14 in the regular season and 26-7 in the 5A-II championship game in 2007. Comments in the media and special practice periods devoted to this game by the Knights put Centennial's players on even higher alert.
"They started talking about us and we started practicing very hard for them in the last two weeks," Anthony Hughes said.
Westview's program has made huge strides since a 7-5 season in 2006. The Knights see Centennial as the final obstacle to being considered one of the state's best teams. It's a scenario Taylor's familiar with.
"We understand how they feel about us," he said. "We understand they're thinking about us like we thought about Chaparral a couple years ago. We understand they're thinking about us like we thought about Mesa Mountain View before we won our second game against them (in 2006) or how we thought about Hamilton before our second game with them this year."