Few teams statewide worked as hard at tackling this week than Bartlett.
How well the Hawks take down receivers in the open field could determine which team wins the Class 8A first-round playoff matchup between No. 10 Bartlett (6-3) and No. 7 Leyden (7-2) at Leyden's west campus in Northlake Friday at 7 p.m.
"We have to be able to tackle in open space," said Bartlett coach Tom Meaney, who directed the program to its 12th playoff berth in 13 seasons. "We did a lot of tackling this week to try to make something happen there. They will pass about 40 percent of the time. They're not real deep passes, but they'll chip away at you with real high-percentage passes. They try to get you to miss a tackle and scoot up the sideline."
The trigger man for Leyden's offense is quarterback Mike Smith (5-11, 165). The senior has completed 73 of 150 passes for 1,101 yards and 8 touchdowns (6 interceptions), and he has rushed for 377 yards and 6 scores.
His top targets are 5-10 senior Andrew Garcia (30 rec., 422 yards, 2 TD), 6-3 senior Javier Rhoades (9-204-2) and 5-9 senior Jon Rodriguez (11-178-0).
"They are all real solid, fast kids," Meaney said. "They're not real, real big, so I think we match up with their speed and size. They're a good team and they'll challenge you, but we match up pretty good."
Leyden's offensive line isn't tall but averages 235 pounds and maintains extremely narrow splits. Lined up 9 yards behind them is senior tailback Mickey Gulo (587 yards, 4 TD), who picks and weaves his way through whichever holes open up.
The job of stopping the Eagles rests on the shoulders of Bartlett seniors like defensive end Chris Kantzavelos (6-4, 255) and third-year inside linebacker Kevin Kirchhoff (5-10, 245).
Offensively, Bartlett will face a 5-2 front, a scheme the Hawks do not see often in the Upstate Eight Conference. The keystone of Leyden's defense is 6-1, 195-pound linebacker Adam Morrison, who leads the Eagles in solo tackles (42) and assists (28).
Bartlett counters with the Fox Valley area's leading rusher, senior Aaron Everson (6-0, 198). The tailback has something to prove after being held to a season-low 40 yards on 16 carries last week in a loss to Neuqua Valley. Everson has carried the ball 238 times this season for 1,749 yards and 24 touchdowns, and he has scored twice on long kickoff returns.
How well the Leyden West Campus grass field holds up after a week of substantial rain could factor into the outcome. Bartlett is used to the artificial turf at Millennium Stadium.
"Traction might be the big word," Meaney said. "That's probably the biggest concern we have. It depends on their grass field over there. It's not on artificial turf. We talked to the kids about getting spikes that are three-quarter inch and lets get after it."