Securing the football will be a top priority when No. 8 St Patrick (7-3) visits No. 1 Cary-Grove (10-0) in a Class 6A second-round playoff game Saturday at 1 p.m.
Both teams specialize in take-aways. Cary-Grove has forced 26 turnovers. The opportunistic Shamrocks have forced 31.
"That's the old Bears strategy of getting turnovers, getting the ball back," St. Patrick coach Dan Galante said. "If we can take away possessions and keep their offense off the field, that's a positive."
St. Patrick rode its ball-hawking strategy to third place in the East Suburban Catholic Conference behind Benet Academy and Marist. The Shamrocks defeated Benet 17-16 in Week 3, handing the Redwings their only loss. They are tasked with limiting the Trojans' flexbone option offense, directed by senior quarterback Quinn Baker.
Baker is expected to return to the lineup Saturday after missing 3-plus games with a broken finger on his non-throwing hand. Baker was cleared to play on Oct. 24. He directed the offense in practice all week and exhibited no lingering effects of the injury, Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg said.
Baker is a formidable weapon. In 6½ games prior to the injury, the option trigger man had rushed for 664 yards and 14 touchdowns on 112 carries and completed 20 of 46 passes for 433 yards and 5 touchdowns. As a junior, he rushed for 1,103 yards and 18 scores.
"He looks sharp," Seaburg said. "Last week, especially on Wednesday and Thursday, he was just figuring out how to take a snap with his hand the way it was. This week it's been pretty much an afterthought. He's done a nice job."
In fact, the Trojans enter Round 2 as healthy as they've been all season. The trio of Baker, bruising fullback Kyle Norberg and playmaker Ryan Mahoney have not been together at full strength since Week 3. Mahoney missed several games at midseason with an ankle injury, but in the last 2 games has scored 4 touchdowns, including a 95-yard kickoff return last week.
Norberg has been the glue throughout. The 6-foot-2, 211-pound senior has rushed for 1,513 yards and 20 touchdowns on 137 carries (10.4 avg.). He also plays situational defense and has picked off passes in consecutive games.
"Just looking at the film and the scores, their offensive is very, very potent and dangerous," Galante said. "To give ourselves a chance we have to be solid in what we're doing and make sure we have people on every phase of the option. That's No. 1. The best defense against them is probably to keep their offensive off the field."
The Shamrocks field three all-ESCC defenders: senior strong safety Nick Sandowski (66 tackles, 2 int..), junior linebacker Cesar Almeida (70 tackles) and junior free safety Mike Warner (68 tackles).
Cary-Grove's defense, led by safety/linebacker hybrid Zach Marszal, will try to stop a dangerous St. Patrick offense averaging 28.5 points per game. The attack features three all-ESCC picks in senior running back Jeremy Molina (199 carries, 1,282 yards, 14 TD) and senior wide receivers Steve Galiardo (63 rec., 724 yards) and John Dabe (29-561-7). Dabe has returned 11 kickoffs for 377 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Sophomore Zach Fuller (6-3, 190) has started at quarterback ever since senior starter Octavia Renteria was injured on the first series of a Week 8 victory at Carmel. Fuller has filled in capably, completing 45 of 92 attempts for 561 yards and 7 touchdowns. He relies heavily on Galiardo (5-foot-10) and Dabe (6-1).
"They are difficult matchups more because of speed than size," Seaburg said of the receiving duo. "Especially (Galiardo). He's a little guy, but he's fast and shifty. They have size up front on offense and a good running game.
"It's that part of the year where every team you play is going to be solid."