By Dave Oberhelman
Class 3A semifinal
No. 4 Aurora Christian (11-1) at No. 2 Newman Central Catholic (12-0)
Game time: 2 p.m. Saturday at Sterling High School
Road to the semifinals: Aurora Christian beat No. 13 Raby 49-12, No. 12 Immaculate Conception 28-21 and No. 9 Winnebago 49-14; Newman Central Catholic beat No. 15 Erie-Prophetstown 21-6, No. 7 Monmouth-Roseville 26-14 and No. 11 Wilmington 28-26.
Outlook: A contrast between something new (Aurora Christian's spread offense) and something old (Newman Central's wishbone) similar to what Aurora Christian faced in its second-round playoff win over Immaculate Conception. The difference is the Comets, out of Sterling, throw the ball less than IC. Junior quarterback A.J. Sharp has completed 15 of 36 passes for 291 yards, 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions; end Nic Miller leads Newman with 7 catches for 150 yards and 2 touchdowns. "I guess you could say we're a three yards and a cloud of dust team," said Comets coach Mike Papoccia, an Illinois High School Football Coaches Association 2003 Hall of Fame inductee. "It's been kind of our forte for decades." His team, often using double-tight end formations, has doubled foes' rushing yards 3,293 to 1,562 with 185-pound senior Nick Rude running option and behind power leads for a team-high 1,205 yards and 14 touchdowns. Brian Bahrs adds 870 yards and 13 touchdowns and 140-pound Jake Snow has run for 562 yards, 7 touchdowns. "Offensively what you see is what you get," said Wilmington coach Jeff Reents. "But they do it very well." Newman Central runs behind senior linemen Papoccia called "the mainstays of our offense" -- tackles Tanner Cole (6-3, 245) and Danny Trygstad (6-0, 215) and guard and Kyle Moore (6-4, 215). The Comets have outscored opponents by an average of 30-10 but must do so against Aurora Christian's fleet 3-5 scheme headed by the one-two punch of all-state safety Brandon Mayes (102 tackles, 15 for loss) and 225-pound middle linebacker Joel Bouagnon (109 tackles). Still, Aurora Christian coach Don Beebe was concerned about allowing Winnebago 300 yards rushing. "If we get them in third-and-7, third-and-8 or longer I think that's going to be a big thing for us," he said. In the Comets' Big Rivers Conference, where they went 9-0 for the second time in three seasons, the spread offense is not used much. Papoccia said he'll use the formation, but certainly not the passing package Aurora Central Catholic employs. Quarterback Ryan McQuade has completed 177 of 307 passes (58 percent) for 2,748 yards, 38 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Five Eagles have more than 200 yards receiving headed by all-stater Chad Beebe (53 catches, 870 yards, 13 touchdowns in 7 games) followed closely by Cory Windle (44 catches, 788 yards, 14 touchdowns). Aside from blowout wins over Guerin and Raby, however, McQuade's 20 throws last week were the least since the Week 5 win over St. Francis when fullback Bouagnon first exploded on the ground with 207 yards. Last week against Winnebago he ran for 208 yards and 4 touchdowns, Mayes adding 111 yards and 2 more. One similarity between the teams is Newman Central also runs a 3-5 defense headed by linebacker Bahrs' 98 tackles and more impact by Moore, Trygstad, linebacker Stephen Adamecz and cornerback Maison Bittner. "We've got to find a way to slow them down and not give up their big plays," said Papoccia, an Elmhurst College graduate whose Comets gave up scores on a fake punt and a blocked punt last week. Don Beebe said Aurora Christian will take what Newman Central's defense gives them dependent upon players in the box, and emphasized fixing a lack of scoring inside the red zone. The kicking game is fairly even, Aurora Christian's Trevor Hills earning the edge on potential field goal distance of about 50 yards; Newman Central's Chris Breed has made 2 field goals in 5 attempts (to Hills' 2-of-3) with a max of about 40 yards. Aurora Christian punter Noah Roberts averages about 35 yards to Breed's 28. "They're very sound and they don't make mistakes," Beebe said. "And they don't turn the ball over, they just don't. You're going to have to beat them if you're going to win. They're not going to give you the game."
Intangibles: Both programs know what it takes to win. Aurora Christian is the reigning 3A champion and is 21-9 in its 11th straight playoff season. Newman Central has won four state titles with two runner-up finishes and is 50-19 overall in 24 playoff appearances including the last 12 straight. Host Sterling High School offers a turf surface, and both these teams are fast. Newman Central will probably have seven players playing on each side of the ball, usually a disadvantage against athletic Aurora Christian. Now in crunch time, however, the Eagles will field their share of two-way players including lineman Josh Kok -- which he's done all season -- and now tackle Jonah Walker. The Comets are a healthy plus-15 in turnover ratio including Cole's fumble recovery for touchdown against Wilmington. Perhaps the biggest intangible is despite the seed Aurora Christian will be seen as the favorite against a similarly fast, disciplined, well-coached team with heart. "They're all that there is to be said about a team," Papoccia said. For his part, Beebe said: "We can't afford to be flat on either side of the ball this week."
Next week: The winner advances to the Class 3A championship game against the winner between No. 2 Tolono-Unity (11-1) and No. 1 Greenville (11-1).
-- Dave Oberhelman