KCChronicle.com/preps Game of the Week: St. Charles East (3-0, 1-0 Upstate Eight Conference River) at Neuqua Valley (2-1, 1-0 UEC Valley), 7:30 p.m. today
The buzz in the stands
At least on the visitor’s side, it’s how long can the Saints keep the good times rolling.
East is 3-0 for the first time since 1998, when the Buck Drach-led Saints went 11-0 en route to advancing to a state quarterfinal.
“That’s the record that we’re chasing but we’re a whole different team,” East coach Mike Fields said. “We’re just doing what we can to get better every week.”
Neuqua Valley wide receiver Mikey Dudek vs. St. Charles East’s DBs.
This one shaped up as a major challenge for the Saints even at full strength, but with one of East’s top cornerbacks, Geno Rogers, sidelined with injury, the Saints’ secondary will be strained all the more.
Fields said Mitch Munroe will see more extended time at cornerback and likely will do his part to bottle up Dudek, an Illinois recruit. The blazing-fast Dudek was recruited by the Illini despite only standing about 5-foot-10.
“We believe in Mitch a lot,” Fields said. “He’s a returning all-conference kid, so we know he’s capable of playing well out there, and we have Scott [Robak] on the other side. Hopefully, we can contain him. We’re not going to shut him down because he’s a heck of a ballplayer.”
Look for standout Saints safety Brannon Barry to provide his corners plenty of support on Dudek patrol.
East’s deep pool of receivers might have more of a chance to show their stuff.
Fields said A.J. Washington and Alex Abate are skilled enough to start for most teams but have been rotating in for East. With Munroe perhaps playing full-time at cornerback tonight, the Saints might need fresh legs at receiver, so guys like Washington and Abate will need to help complement East wideouts Mo Flanigan, Barry and Munroe.
Best-case scenario for the Saints
East’s defense is going to give up substantial yardage to a Neuqua team that has scored 34 points or more in each of its three games against a quality schedule (wins against Naperville North and South Elgin, and a Week 2 loss to Naperville Central), but the key is buckling down late in drives, as the Saints did in last week’s overtime win against St. Charles North.
“Everyone wants to talk about offense,” Fields said. “The defense had that bend-not-break mentality [against St. Charles North], and that’s exactly what they did.”
East also will try to take advantage of a Neuqua team that is talented but has had it share of mental lapses.
“What I’m concerned about is our team right now,” Neuqua coach Bill Ellinghaus said. “We need to put four quarters together. We’ve had some good quarters, we’ve had a good half but we have not played four quarters. That’s what concerns me most.”
Best-case scenario for the Wildcats
A defensive line led by explosive nose tackle Godfrey Collins causes trouble on the interior of the Saints’ line, making for an uncomfortable night for East QB Jimmy Mitchell.
Fields said the Saints’ offensive line “did OK” against North but still is adjusting to the loss of starting guard Jake Schultz, with Zach Reyes and Jack Sharkey getting chances to contribute on a line anchored by center Ben Smith and tackle Brennan Bosch.
Safety Eli Tappin leads the Wildcats in tackles, but having the leading tackler come from that spot probably doesn’t reflect well for a Neuqua team that is expecting another close game after surviving South Elgin last week, 40-34.
“I think it’s going to be a great football game, I really do,” Ellinghaus said. “I’d be shocked if anyone thought it would be a lopsided game one way or another.”
Jay Schwab’s prediction: Neuqua Valley 27, St. Charles East 21
Last week’s emotional triumph against St. Charles North won’t be East’s last big win of this season, but asking the Saints to turn around and beat a defending 8A state semifinalist on the road the next week, on Neuqua’s homecoming, is a tall order.
It could be done, but a formidable pool of Wildcats playmakers – wide receiver Ryan Kuhl and running back TJ Scruggs are solid complements to Dudek – might be enough to hand East a setback in this quality matchup.