Kaneland (7-0, 3-0 Northern Illinois Big 12 East) at Sycamore (7-0, 3-0 NI Big 12 East), 7:30 p.m. today
The buzz in the stands
Kaneland's marathon winning streaks are the elephants in the room anywhere they go, and loom especially large on a night when there's a realistic chance they could be in jeopardy.
Kaneland has won 35 straight regular season games dating to the final week of the 2009 season, and the Knights have yet to lose a conference game in the Northern Illinois Big 12, which debuted in 2010.
Sycamore receiver Ben Niemann vs. Kaneland's defensive backs
Niemann, an Iowa recruit who originally gave a verbal commitment to Northern Illinois, has 28 receptions for 618 yards and six touchdowns on the season.
Kaneland coach Tom Fedderly said Niemann's presence helps make this Sycamore team even more dangerous than some of the Spartans teams from the recent past.
"I think Niemann is a really special player," Fedderly said.
The Kaneland secondary – like the rest of the Knights' defense – has been reliable all season. The Knights have allowed only 60 points all year, less than half what Sycamore has yielded.
Ball-hawking linebacker Cole Carlson has also proven to be a key component in the Knights' pass coverage.
Kaneland quarterback Drew David's big-game experience.
The senior and three-year varsity starter has played in more than his share of high-stakes games, and figures to remain composed in a difficult environment tonight.
From past showdowns against Sycamore or Morris, David and his fellow seniors know all about handling the pressure of a conference race.
"We know that going through our conference is going to get us playoff-ready," Fedderly said. "Getting the opportunity when you play in these big games is just an unbelievable experience for our kids as to what is going to be coming down the road."
Best-case scenario for the Knights
Kaneland's vaunted lines overwhelm Sycamore.
Sycamore coach Joe Ryan is certainly concerned about that possibility. Ryan said the Knights' line-play doesn't compare to anyone Sycamore has encountered.
Knights senior left tackle Joe Komel is commanding Division I attention but the Knights' blocking has earned rave reviews across the board.
"They're so much bigger than anyone we've played to this point," Ryan said. "There's not a team we can draw comparisons to that we've played to this point. There's teams that had an outstanding lineman, just not all of them, with the size."
Best-case scenario for the Spartans
Sycamore caught Kaneland's attention from the get-go this season, when the Spartans won opening week against Lincoln-Way West, the team that ousted Kaneland last year in the second round of the 5A playoffs.
The Spartans' offense has the firepower to sustain drives even against a defense of Kaneland's caliber. In addition to Niemann, quarterback Devin Mottet (1,149 passing yards, 10 touchdowns, one interception, 541 rushing yards) and running back Riley Hurley (532 rushing yards, 14 TDs) are key pieces for the Spartans.
For Sycamore to prevail, though, the Spartans' defense will have to pry the ball away at least a couple times from a Kaneland offense that has turned the ball over more than the Knights would like this season.
Without some takeaways on defense, the Spartans – who allowed Rochelle 33 points last week in a 42-33 Spartans win – seem unlikely to generate enough defensive stops to prevent David from cashing in on the Knights' tone-setting line and deep receiving corps.
Jay Schwab's prediction: Kaneland 31, Sycamore 21
Kaneland's defense has been dynamite all season, and with this game long circled on the calendar, count on the Knights having a terrific gameplan in place for limiting Mottet, Niemann and Co.
Even if the game is tight in the second half, the Knights' hulking line should be able to wear down the Spartans in the fourth quarter and allow the Knights to manage their way to yet another NI Big 12 conquest.