It took Chandler’s biggest nemesis to finally give its top-ranked team a challenge.
But trailing by 14 points entering the final quarter, Chandler rallied and had to make a stop from its own 2 on an untimed down to hold on for a 42-38 victory over Hamilton before an overflow crowd at Austin Field on Friday night.
Chandler (10-0) will take the top spot heading into the eight-team Open Division state playoffs in two weeks.
Hamilton (7-2) will find out Saturday morning where it will land in the Open. A computer might not show how strong this Hamilton team is to move it up from its current spot at No. 5.
Who knows? There could be a quarterfinal rematch on Arizona Avenue.
“We just worried about ourselves and (didn’t) let the scoreboard get in the way of us and keep doing what we do,” said junior quarterback Mikey Keene, who drove Chandler 75 yards in the final 2:27 for the Wolves’ first lead of the game.
Dae Dae Hunter — who had two 54-yard scoring runs, including an electrifying blast past defenders with 10:42 left to make it a one-possession game — scored from 1 yard out with 17 seconds left for a lead that was so tough to finally secure. It was Hunter’s fourth TD run.
But Hamilton wasn’t done.
Quarterback Nick Arvay, as time ran out, launched a pass from midfield down the left sideline in the direction of three receivers, hoping Brenden Rice would come up with it. He had hooked up twice for touchdowns in the first half with the Colorado commit.
Brady Shough came down with the ball at the 4.
A roughing-the-passer penalty put the ball on the 2 with no time left. The game can’t end on a penalty. So after coach Mike Zdebski had his offense line up to the ball, he called a timeout.
Arvay’s ensuing pass sailed high and out of the end zone, and Chandler players celebrated.
“We ended up making a play when we needed to make one,” coach Rick Garretson said. “We were rallying up all night. Our kids persevered. Hamilton played great. Coach Z called a great game. That’s why we lift weights. We kept our composure and came back and finished it off.”
Hamilton dictated the line of scrimmage from the start, gashing Chandler’s three-man front most of the night with Zachary Lewis, Gabriel Armenta and Sebastian Dorman finding big holes. Even Arvay found seams down the middle of the field for big gains.
Chandler had big runs called back by penalties and saw Hamilton defensive end Alex Wielert scoop up an errant snap and return it 71 yards with 26 seconds left in the half to give Hamilton a 28-14 lead.
After taking a 35-21 lead on Arvay’s third TD pass, a 12-yard strike to Shough, Hamilton’s defense forced another turnover with Jamar Brown intercepting a pass late in the third quarter.
Hamilton drove to the Chandler 17, but instead of kicking a field goal and making it a three-possession game, the Huskies got stuffed for no gain on fourth down and Chandler took over.
Three plays later, Hunter was in the end zone with the 54-yard run.
The Chandler side erupted.
A blocked punt by Bryant Jackson led to Eli Sanders’ 15-yard burst up the middle that tied the score at 35 with 8:26 left.
Momentum clearly had shifted after safety Gunner Maldonado leaped to intercept a deep pass over Rice to give Chandler the ball back with 7:25 left.
Hamilton held and drove to the Chandler 8, setting up Colin Fuller’s 25-yard field goal with 2:35 left for a 38-35 lead.
Keene found Jalen Richmond for a 35-yard gain, then found him again to get the ball to the 1 as time was ticking down.
“Dae Dae had a heck of a game, so did Eli,” Garretson said. “Any time you’ve got big plays they take back on penalties and the fumble they took to the house … I love my kids. They play hard. Finished 10-0 but now it’s on to the next season.”
Before Friday, no Arizona team had come within 35 points of the Wolves. They were coming off three consecutive 49-0 victories.
This might have been the best game for them to be in heading into the big eight.
“We love this kind of game,” Garretson said. “It’s better than playing teams and going 49-0. Our kids have no other choice but to focus. Give Hamilton a lot of credit. They played well. It was a great game.”