There was once a day when the Northwestern football program and its fans treated a trip to the state championship game like a routine day at the office.
But nine years is a long time and a program that was starved for a return trip to the state title got a belly full on Friday night. Northwestern beat Naples 42-7 in a Class 6A state semifinal at Traz Powell Stadium.
The win put the Bulls (11-2), who went to three consecutive title games from 2006 to 2008, into next week’s Class 6A state championship game. They will take on Seffner Armwood, which defeated St. Augustine 30-6 in the other semifinal, at Camping World Stadium in Orlando on Friday, Dec. 8, at 8 p.m.
“This is a big moment for the entire Bulls community,” said coach Max Edwards. “To be going back up to Orlando after nearly 10 years is such a great thing and we owe it all to the hard work and determination of each and every one of those kids over there. I think the kids this year played every game like it was their last game and that was the difference.”
They overcame a couple of obstacles on Friday night. The first came when Naples (10-2) stunned the Northwestern defense on its third play from scrimmage. With a third-and-nine at their own 24, Golden Eagles running back Cesare Mellusi took a handoff on a straight dive play and took off for a 76-yard touchdown and 7-0 Naples lead.
“We kind of messed that one up but we felt like we would be able to handle them all night,” said safety Divaad Wilson.
As the Golden Eagles only had 84 more yards of offense the rest of the night.
Meanwhile, the Bulls answered Naples’ quick score with a quick one of their own as running back Bo Kendrick took off on runs of 27 and 51 yards to set his team up at the two-yard line and then took it over from there to make it 7-7.
Quarterback Tutu Atwell took over from there, leading the Bulls on two more touchdown drives, first on a one-yard touchdown run set up following a 36-yard run on a naked bootleg on third-and-nine two plays earlier followed by a 45-yard scoring run by Jacquez Stuart on a flanker reverse that made it 21-7 early in the second.
That’s when the Bulls had to deal with a second obstacle. On the ensuing possession, one that ended when Northwestern got stuffed on a fourth-and-goal at the Naples one, Atwell rolled his right ankle when somebody fell on it.
He tried to return on the next series but limped back off the field as the Bulls, a team that has had a penchant for squandering second half leads, trotted to the locker room at halftime with their 14-point lead.
“I didn’t even need to remind them,” said Edwards. “I already heard them talking in the locker room when I got in there that they needed to get out there and finish things and not let our opponent off the ground.”
And they would have to do it without Atwell, who did not return in the second half. But backup Justin Hill Jr. was more than up to the task as he came right out on NW’s opening second-half possession and led the offense downfield thanks mainly to a 32-yard run to the Naples five and scored from the three two plays later to make it 28-7.
He then fired a pair of touchdown passes, 17 yards to Quavon Beckford late in the third quarter and a 14-yarder to Derrick Davis midway through the fourth to get the running clock going.
“I’m fine. I could’ve gone back in if I needed to but we had the lead and we were confident Justin [Hill] could go in there and get it done and he did a great job,” Atwell said.
Edwards said Atwell remaining on the sideline was simply precautionary.
“We had the two touchdown lead and our defense was playing well after giving up that early long touchdown so we felt like we had the game under control and held him out just as a precautionary thing,” said Edwards. “Justin came in and did just an outstanding job.”