No. 3 Mt. Carmel (11-1) at
No. 1 Neuqua Valley (12-0)
Game time: 6 p.m. Saturday.
Road to the semifinals: Mt. Carmel beat No. 14 Brother Rice 30-9, No. 6 Simeon 41-6 and No. 15 Lyons Twp. 45-10; Neuqua Valley beat No. 16 Naperville North 56-20, No. 9 Bolingbrook 44-33 and No. 4 Waubonsie Valley 23-20.
Outlook: In a season of firsts, Neuqua Valley seeks its first trip to a state championship. In the way is Illinois coaching legend Frank Lenti and his Caravan, who have been there 15 times with 10 state titles. Mt. Carmel's last visit, an 8A runner-up finish in 2010, included a second-round 21-14 win over Neuqua in overtime. Lenti doesn't believe the Mt. Carmel tradition will turn the Wildcats to stone. "I look at us as the underdog," said Lenti, an Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer. "They're 12-0 and we're not. For my money they pretty much dominated the game two years ago." Mt. Carmel's split-back veer offense can be a thing of beauty. This year's model features junior Matt Domer, who according to Northwest Indiana.com has run for 1,048 yards and 17 touchdowns; and Northern Illinois-bound three-year starting running back-cornerback Draco Smith with 638 yards and 8 touchdowns. Two-year starting quarterback Don Butkus -- his grandfather is Dick's brother -- has run for 461 yards and 12 touchdowns and passed for 939 yards and 13 interceptions. "They're able to be pretty balanced with all three of them," Neuqua coach Bill Ellinghaus said of Butkus, Domer and Smith, "then the kid drops back and throws the ball a bit." As Lenti said, this belly veer is not an offense teams see a lot. Neuqua defensive ends Tyler Speich and Mike Casas, safeties Spencer Donahue and the all-state Dennis Thurow, middle linebacker Sam Norgaard and outside linebackers Nolan Dean and Andrew Fraczek must stick to their commitments on dive, pitch and keep. The key for Neuqua Valley and Mt. Carmel's defensive key is, of course, Wildcats all-state tailback Joey Rhattigan. In the mud against Waubonsie Valley he ran for 292 yards and 3 touchdowns; against Bolingbrook he ran for a program-record 346 yards and 5 touchdowns. On the season Rhattigan has run for 2,192 yards and 33 touchdowns. Mt. Carmel's 50 defense, headed by defensive linemen Steven Richardson and Dave Denne, linebackers Connor Griffin and Illinois State recruit D.J. Romero, gives up just 7.8 points a game. The Wildcats haven't needed much from quarterback Dylan Andrew the past two games but might Saturday. The senior is 81-of-133 passing for 1,414 yards, 18 touchdowns, just 3 interceptions. Look for Mike Dudek, with 894 yards and 13 touchdown grabs, Reggie Ervin or tight end Ryan Kuhl to play role. No one played a bigger role in last week's win than kicker Ryan Mulhern, whose 19-yard field goal with seven seconds left allowed the Wildcats to advance.
Intangibles: Neuqua Valley has scored 10 touchdowns on returns of one sort or another, 6 on kickoff returns. The Wildcats have put the win over District 204 rival Waubonsie Valley behind them but can't dwell on revenge over the 2010 loss to Mt. Carmel or dream of their first championship appearance. (Likewise, Mt. Carmel would love to avenge its sole loss, 30-27 in overtime against 8A semifinalist Loyola, should the Ramblers beat Glenbard North.) "Our kids are focused yet at the same time they're excited about it," Ellinghaus said. "The whole Neuqua Valley community is fired up about it."
Next week: The winner advances to the 8A championship against the winner between No. 4 Glenbard North (11-1) and No. 2 Loyola (11-1).