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By Dave Oberhelman
No. 9 Winnebago (9-2) at No. 4 Aurora Christian (10-1)
Class 3A quarterfinals
Game time: 6 p.m. Saturday.
Last week: Winnebago 56, No. 1 Elmwood-Brimfield 20; Aurora Christian 28, No. 12 Immaculate Conception 21.
Outlook: This is the same matchup as last year, when Aurora Christian beat the Indians 48-13 in the quarterfinals. Winnebago, which has never advanced past this stage in 10 prior playoff appearances, beat the Eagles 28-14 in a 3A first-rounder in 2009. This season coach Mark Helm's Indians placed third behind Byron and Rockford Lutheran in the Big Northern West, and took losses to Rockford Lutheran and Stillman Valley while outscoring its opposition 457-231 to date. "This will be another good test for our defense against their offense," said Aurora Christian coach Don Beebe. "Their offense is pretty good." Must be, to put up 56 points on an unbeaten No. 1 seed that gave up an average of 12.9 points. The Rockford Registar Star reports that Winnebago's multiple offense — sometimes three backs, other times four wideouts — has accumulated more than 3,000 yards rushing. But it's very spread out, Jake Hickey leading the squad with 542 yards rushing. Quarterback Ryan Swigart, who actually caught 4 passes for 61 yards as a receiver in last year's game, has completed better than half his 106 pass attempts for 1,044 yards, 3 interceptions and 14 touchdowns, 9 of them to 6-foot receiver Derek Polkowski. Beebe said Helm has tweaked the offense from the scheme that last year the Eagles outgained 487 yards to 259. "Usually they're run-oriented, but they've got a better quarterback and they throw a little more than what you would expect a Winnebago team to do," Beebe said. On the ground, Beebe said the Indians will run between the tackles but also are dangerous attacking the perimeter. The Peoria Journal Star said nine different Winnebago offensive players touched the ball and six scored in the first half of the win over Elmwood-Brimfield. Defensively, Winnebago has also veered from the four-man front Aurora Christian saw last season to a 3- or 5-man front headed by quick, 190-pound nose tackle Sean Ward. "So it's a nice test for our center (Tristan Withrow)," Beebe said. A week ago at Immaculate Conception Beebe challenged defenders such as defensive end Jonah Walker after a 14-14 halftime tie. The Eagles outscored IC 14-7 the second half, Walker forcing 2 fumbles and quarterback Ryan McQuade connecting on 2 touchdown passes to Cory Windle. Except for the passing arm of IC's Demetrius Carr, however, the Knights' option offense does not show the variety of Winnebago, Beebe said. But with Walker, safety Brandon Mayes, lineman Josh Kok, cornerbacks Legend Smith and M.J. Zepeda, middle linebacker Joel Bouagnon (team-high 93 tackles) and the rest of a stellar 3-5 defense, this group is even better than last year's, which won 3A and helped eliminate Winnebago in a running-clock rout. And, the Eagles are at home where they can better use their speed. "We have struggled at times on grass," Beebe said. "Our speed is amplified on turf."
Next week: The winner advances to the 3A semifinals between the winner of No. 2 Sterling Catholic Newman (11-0) and No. 11 Wilmington (9-2).