There was 6:46 left in the game and things were not looking good for the Northwestern Bulls.
Seffner Armwood had just scored to cut their lead to five in the Class 6A state championship game. And, after a penalty on the ensuing kickoff, they were backed up at their own 10 yard line as Armwood fans roared loudly, sensing their team was going to rally to win it.
It’s moments like that when your senior leader, your big playmaker, the one you turn to all the time to make a big play in a big moment, needs to step up and come through.
And that’s exactly what quarterback Chatarius “Tutu” Atwell did for his team on Friday night.
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Even though the Bulls never scored on the drive, Atwell proceeded to drive his team 51 yards in 15 plays taking nearly five minutes off the clock, forcing the Hawks to burn the rest of their timeouts and re-establish his team’s momentum.
Even though they eventually got stopped on a second fourth-and-one attempt at the Armwood 40, giving the Hawks the ball back with 1:50 left, the Bulls defense took it from there, forcing a four-and-out to secure Northwestern’s 21-16 victory at Camping World Stadium. And with it came a return to football glory for Bulls Nation, marking the team’s first state title in a decade.
And all of it, at least a lot of it, thanks to Atwell, who moved in as a starter his freshman year, took his lumps during a 5-5 season, got better each year and capped off a brilliant four-year career at the West on Friday night with one final time-killing, momentum-grabbing drive that allowed his team to win the game.
“A very important drive for us,” said Atwell, championship medal draped around his neck. “We could feel the momentum getting away and I just told my offense, we don’t have to score, we just have to keep finding a way to move the chains which we managed to do. That was huge.”
No kidding. And perhaps the biggest play of the 14 may have been the third one. Facing a third and 12 at his own eight, Atwell stepped up in the pocket and took off running around the left side, barely making it to the sticks for a 13-yard gain and fresh set of downs.
On a second-and-14 from his own 17, he was at it again, taking off on a 26-yard run to the 43 for another first down.
“For sure it looked like the momentum was gone and Tutu just stepped up and made some big plays,” said Bulls coach Max Edwards who gambled not once but twice on fourth-and-one on the drive, getting the first one but not the second. “That’s why I went for it twice on fourth down since it was only fourth and one each time. When we got that first one it was huge because it forced them to use the rest of their timeouts and even though we didn’t get the second one, we knew our defense would come through for us, and they did.”
Atwell finished his night like he had so many nights over his four seasons at the controls of his offense — doing just as much damage on the ground as through the air. He completed 10 of 18 passes for 152 yards including a huge 46-yard touchdown pass to Kiaryn Davis late in the third quarter to put the Bulls up 21-9.
But he also led all rushers in the game with 106 yards on 15 carries and one touchdown.
“We’ve been working hard all the way since ninth grade when we were 5-5 and then just gradually got better year after year and here we are standing here tonight with medals around our neck as state champions,” said Atwell who will finish school early and be off to Louisville by the spring. “I’m just proud for everyone that we made it here. I dreamed about a moment like this but you never know if it will actually become a reality and here we are. Northwestern is back. What a way to go out.”
Said Edwards: “He’s a very special young man that has gotten better every year. He had to deal with a few different offensive coordinators and showed an ability to adapt each time. His leadership? His maturity? It came by playing. He never once fussed at any kid and we needed every ounce of that maturity and leadership out there tonight, especially on that last drive. He’s got a great future at the next level.”