KCChronicle.com/preps Game of the Week – Class 3A state semifinals: Aurora Christian (11-1) at Sterling Newman (12-0), 2 p.m. today (game will be played at Sterling HS)
The buzz: Whether there is time to schedule a last-minute Thanksgiving trip to grandma's, or there will instead be pigskin on next week's docket. The winner of the game advances to Friday's 4 p.m. 3A state championship game in Champaign against the winner of today's other semifinal between a pair of 11-1, downstate teams – Greenville and Tolono Unity.
The Eagles will have it rolling if ...
Muscle memory kicks in.
Aurora Christian has a long history of handling power running teams from the western part of the state in the playoffs. Ninth-year Eagles coach Don Beebe reminisced about that holding true dating all the way to his first year when Aurora Christian, then a 1A team, tangled with Stockton.
Since then, Aurora Christian has faced a variety of rural foes that only throw the ball grudgingly but smile ear-to-ear about the prospect of blowing defensive linemen off the ball to convert a third-and-3.
"We understand the mentality, and we have to be able to match that from a physical standpoint," Beebe said.
Aurora Christian has mixed in more two-tight end sets this season to capitalize on a bigger line and quality backs Joel Bouagnon (1,260 rushing yards, 18 TDs) and Brandon Mayes (750 rushing yards, six TDs), but the Eagles will still run plenty of spread formation offense that is likely to strain the Comets.
"There's really no film to watch from our offense's standpoint because they've never faced a spread team all year," Beebe said. "You're kind of guessing what they're going to do. I'm not sure what they'll do defensively, to be honest with you."
A fly on the wall in the Eagles' locker room might hear ...
"We sure turned it on in the second half last week against Winnebago. That was fun to watch, guys.
"Problem is, that's not acceptable this week. If we let them hang around for a half, they're liable to feed off their home-field advantage and really make us pay in the second half.
"We need four crisp quarters of football tonight, not two. That's what a team that wants to be state champions ought to be able to do, so let's see it."
The Comets will have it rolling if ...
Sterling Newman is able to score 30 points or more to keep the pressure on the Eagles.
Aurora Christian's offense has too many high-caliber players and is too balanced to expect the Comets to keep the Eagles in check for extended stretches of the game, so Newman needs to be effective out of its wishbone sets and convert almost all of its manageable third downs to stay in contention.
Make no mistake – despite the Comets' 12-0 record and top seed, the defending state champion Eagles are the favorite in this game. Newman eked out a 28-26 quarterfinal win against Wilmington to advance last week while Aurora Christian erupted in the second half of its 49-14 win against Winnebago.
Nick Rude (177 carries for 1,148 yards and 16 TDs) and Brian Bahrs (149 carries, 871 yards, 13 TDs) are the featured backs that will try to keep the heat on an ACS defense that Beebe has said is the finest 'D' in his Aurora Christian tenure.
Eagles linebackers such as Ryan Suttle, Jackson Carpenter and Bouagnon will surely be creeping toward the line of scrimmage; Newman QB A.J. Sharp has passed for only 301 yards on the season, compared to 2,748 for the Eagles' Ryan McQuade.
Beebe expects Newman to feed off its home field and 33-year Comets coach Mike Papoccia.
"You can tell they play with a lot of emotion and a lot of attitude, and that comes from your coach," Beebe said.
A fly on the wall in the Comets' locker room might hear ...
"We're not going to win a beauty contest today. Who would want to? That's no fun, anyway.
"What we can do is block, tackle and carry out our assignments better than anybody in the state, these guys included.
"If we do those things, take care of the football and a few things go our way, we can make sure a new 3A champion is going to be crowned this year. Let's make that us."
Jay Schwab's prediction: Aurora Christian 34, Sterling Newman 15.
Sterling Newman may well be a legitimate 3A state title contender.
Problem for the Comets is the Eagles aren't a 3A team – not from a personnel standpoint, anyway. Featuring a trio of Northern Illinois recruits at skill spots to go with formidable lineplay, the Eagles are a cut above, and a Newman team that hasn't seen a quality passing attack all season takes the field at a major disadvantage.