CHAMPAIGN – The Aurora Christian football team used to be known as spread-offense wizards.
These days, the Eagles are simply known as champions.
Discarding its spread packages in favor of a power running game, Aurora Christian surged past Tolono Unity, 42-12, on Friday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign to give the Eagles their second straight IHSA Class 3A state championship. The Eagles finished both championship seasons 13-1, with their loss each year coming against 5A juggernaut Montini.
Recognizing chilly, windy conditions would strain his team’s downfield capabilities, Eagles coach Don Beebe said offensive players spent a chunk of Thursday night in Beebe’s hotel room to broaden their array of two-back plays. As Friday’s game unfolded, Beebe decided to ride Northern Illinois-bound standouts Joel Bouagnon and Brandon Mayes, with a boost from the brawniest offensive line the Eagles have had.
“I just told our coaches, listen, we’ve got to make some adjustments here on offense, or we’re going to lose this football game,” Beebe said. “Let’s get away from this spread stuff, and let’s just go straight Power-I. It was effective.”
A scoreless third quarter in which Aurora Christian’s offense uncharacteristically squandered great field position set the stage for a tense stretch run that never materialized.
The Rockets (12-2) were inches from taking the lead when kicker Cody Payne lined up for a 28-yard field goal, but his kick from the right hash caromed off the left goal post no good, preserving the Eagles’ 14-12 lead with 8:36 left in the fourth quarter.
Two plays later, Bouagnon busted a 60-yard touchdown run as the Eagles grabbed a 21-12 lead with 8:01 left in the game.
“I just remember we got into the I-formation, so I knew that was our power running, and then everyone just made great blocks,” Bouagnon said. “I just went to the outside, and I saw that Brandon made a good block, and there was one guy to beat, so I did that.”
The Rockets, lacking a catch-up style offense, self-destructed from there, turning the ball over three times during the final eight minutes, and the Eagles pounced for what would be their fourth blowout out of five playoff wins this season. One of the late turnovers was a 75-yard interception return for a TD by Mayes, making it 35-12 Eagles with 2:37 to play following the point after.
It was the second straight season in which Aurora Christian played a dominant fourth quarter to take command of a postseason game against the Rockets. In 2011, Unity’s narrow lead turned into a 50-26, Aurora Christian rout during the final 10 minutes of a 3A state semifinal in Aurora.
Unity coach Scott Hamilton was dismayed that the Rockets – playing about 10 miles from their school – were unable to change the script.
“Going into the fourth quarter, we got the wind, and felt like we were in good shape,” Hamilton said. “We missed the field goal, and then had to try and open things up. Once you open things up against those guys, their skill kids can take over a little bit.”
Aurora Christian passed for only 95 yards – quite a rarity for the Eagles, who rolled into Champaign with more than 3,000 passing yards to their credit. But the Eagles (185 rushing yards) almost equaled Unity’s output on the ground, and saw Bouagnon score on a pair of fourth quarter runs.
One of the Eagles’ few successful passing sequences came after Unity turned it over on downs at the Aurora Christian 36 with 1:40 left in the second quarter. The Eagles started and ended the ensuing five-play drive with 20-plus yard connections between senior quarterback Ryan McQuade and senior receiver Cory Windle, culminating with a beautifully thrown 28-yard strike for a touchdown with 1:04 left in the first half. Trevor Hills’ PAT made it 14-12 Eagles, and it stayed that way at halftime.
“The first thing I told them at halftime, I said, OK, everybody take a deep breath,” Beebe said. “I said let’s reflect on Marmion, 7-6 (at halftime), let’s reflect on Montini, we were losing 24-6, let’s reflect on Winnebago, we were tied and not playing real well. ... I said guys, listen, in those three games, you outscored your opponents 96-14 in the second half. I said that’s exactly what you’re going to do today.”
With the Eagles trailing 12-0, Mayes provided the spark his team needed, returning Unity’s kick 70 yards to the Rockets’ 25-yard line, then scoring on a 16-yard run on the first play of the second quarter.
Bouagnon (10 rushes, 95 yards, two TDs) and Mayes (12 rushes, 71 yards, TD) helped offset highly regarded Unity backs Conner Grace (18 rushes, 105 yards) and Mitch Negangard (26 carries, 101 yards, two TDs).
“I wouldn’t quite put them in Joel-Brandon category, but they were great running backs,” Eagles two-line lineman Josh Kok said. “It was tough.”
Until the fourth quarter, when the Eagles continued to ascend like no others.