Cary-Grove's explosive offense has rightfully commanded headlines this season, but the credit for the Trojans' 7-0 victory over Crystal Lake Central in Saturday's Class 6A quarterfinal lies squarely with the defense.
A unit that opened the season with a ton of question marks punctuated one of the most important playoff victories in school history by turning the CL Central offense away four times in Cary-Grove territory, including twice in the game's final five minutes.
"Our offense has been playing really well lately, and we knew sooner or later our defense was really going to have to step up in a big game," Cary-Grove senior Zach Marszal said. "We hadn't been playing as well as we want to the first two rounds of the playoffs, but today we really stepped up and got every stop we needed to."
The 2012 Trojans joined elite company with the fourth quarterfinal victory in program history. They now belong in the same conversation with the 1997 team that lost in the semifinals to Rock Island in overtime, with the 2004 squad that lost to Libertyville in a state title game and with the 2009 Class 6A state champion team.
And it's not over yet. No. 1 Cary-Grove (12-0) will travel to No. 10 Lake Forest (9-3) for a semifinal clash next Saturday.
"For years, the 1997 team was the high-water mark," second-year head coach and program veteran Brad Seaburg said. "In 2004, when we got runner up, that became the high-water mark. You're never going to surpass 2009 from the standpoint of their athleticism and their execution on offense and defense.
"How can you top '09? I guess the only way you can do it is to win it all. This definitely puts us one step closer to that."
Crystal Lake Central played arguably the greatest football game in that school's history and still lost, mainly because the Tigers' stout defense was upstaged by the bend-but-don't break Cary-Grove defense, which registered its first shutout of the season.
A shutout in a state quarterfinal? You could have knocked Seaburg and 32nd-year defensive coordinator Don Sutherland over with a feather back in July if you'd told them the defense they watched struggle through summer camp at Wisconsin-Whitewater would eventually manage such a feat.
The Cary-Grove defense was in flux five months ago. Marszal missed much of camp due to baseball commitments, two-year linebacker Kyle Norberg was concentrating on his switch to full-time fullback, lineman Patrick O'Malley was adjusting to the switch from offense to defense, and another starting linebacker missed time due to summer school. The defense's only available returning starter during camp was lineman Mickey Duncan.
Juniors like defensive lineman Emerson Kersten, linebacker Matt Hughes and sophomore cornerback Matt Sutherland were making the jump to varsity speed for the first time, and some seniors who didn't play regularly as juniors were taking on expanded roles. Not surprisingly, the more veteran offense made the defense look pretty bad during camp.
"We had so many kids gone, graduated, and when we went away to Whitewater we were in disarray as far as who to play where and just what our identity would be," Don Sutherland said.
The identity the Trojan defense eventually took actually has multiple personalities. The 3-3-5 scheme of recent years is nearly unrecognizable to opposing offensive coordinators at this point due to hybridization. Marszal is a perfect example. It's hard to say definitively what position he plays because he lines up sometimes as a linebacker, sometimes as a safety.
The Trojans might drop four deep on one play, three deep on the next, crash from the edge on the next. The number of players in the box constantly changes, as do alignments. It's the kind of intentional subterfuge necessary to succeed for an undersized high school defense that relies on speed more than power.
"Our identity is our flexibility and our ability to change over the course of the game," Sutherland said. "And that hasn't been the way we've been when we were stacked 3-3 and we were going to beat you up front with speed. We can do that some weeks, some weeks we have to be a little more tricky."
Or as senior linebacker Brock Bussenger put it: "If one thing's not working, we know we have the opportunity to switch to something else to stop them."
That flexibility was on display Saturday after the Trojans shut down the CL Central running game, which managed 47 rushing yards on 18 attempts. Forced to the air, CL Central quarterback Kyle Lavand completed 14 of 25 passes for 135 yards, but he completed only 4 his last 9 attempts on Central's final 2 drives, including an interception. That was partially due to a Cary-Grove defensive adjustment at halftime.
"We switched up our coverage a little bit to take down their outside receivers," Marszal said. "It wasn't anything, just a minor adjustment, and things really picked up in the second half."
No sequence better demonstrated how far the Trojans have come defensively than the final two minutes of the game. After Marcus Thimios intercepted Lavand with 3:28 to play and Kaene Connington picked up what looked to be the game-clinching first down, the Cary-Grove offense fumbled for the third consecutive possession. The miscue put the defense back on the field in a 1-possession game at its own 29-yard line with 1:20 to play.
What followed was the most critical stop of the season for the Cary-Grove defense, capped by Matt Sutherland's pass breakup at his own 5-yard line on fourth-and-1 from the 20.
A Cary-Grove defense once considered in disarray left the disappointed Tigers in disbelief.
"They've come a long way and they did an outstanding job," Seaburg said of his defense. "I am so proud of them. They are progressing and the entire team is progressing. They are definitely a special group. We've let them know that, too."