By Dave Oberhelman
No. 5 Stillman Valley (10-2) at No. 10 Aurora Christian (9-3)
Class 3A semifinal
Game time: 5 p.m. Saturday.
Last week: Stillman Valley 34, No. 1 Winnebago 20; Aurora Christian 36, No. 6 Seneca 27.
Outlook: Particularly in playoff football, ask a coach the differences between winning and losing and he'll bring up turnovers. Aurora Christian was good enough to beat Seneca despite throwing an interception and losing 2 fumbles. Can the Eagles (who forced 4 Seneca turnovers) beat Stillman Valley under similar straits? Maybe and maybe not. "They will be very difficult to stop," said Aurora Christian defensive coordinator David Beebe. Though Beebe said the offense of the Cardinals -- third in the Big Northern West behind Winnebago and Rockford Lutheran and owning four state titles -- is more intricate than it looks, it boils down to stopping the ground game without getting burned by a rare pass. Top linemen Thom Hess, Chris Brauns and Wyatt Stockton pace a power rushing system featuring 6-foot-2, 225-pound senior fullback Zac Hare, who according to the Rockford Register Star has 231 carries for 1,487 yards, 27 touchdowns. A distant second on the Cardinals is wingback Tristan Elliot's 78 carries for 651 yards, 6 touchdowns; and fellow wingback Logan Alberts and quarterback Connor McNames, each with 4 TDs and between 375-399 yards rushing. "As a whole, if we're doing well we're moving the ball on the ground and trying to chew up clock," said Stillman coach Mike Lalor, who pounded Aurora Christian 46-16 in the 2010 quarterfinals, then lost 38-20 in Week 1 of 2011 as the Eagles headed to the first of their two 3A titles. (Lalor also noted the Cardinals did not turn the ball over against Winnebago, and gained short fields by forcing mistakes.) McNames has passed only 38 times for 338 yards, 2 interceptions, 2 touchdowns, while Hare's 60-, 44- and 38-yard touchdown runs countered a 20-14 deficit against Winnebago. "You'vegot to stop that kid," said Aurora Christian head coach Don Beebe, David's brother. That starts up front with Eagles' defensive linemen Jack Burke, Tristan Withrow, Nathan Wells and Jonah Walker, who has made 51 tackles, 10.5 for loss. Stillman Valley, though, will have seen Seneca pass for 198 yards and surprise Aurora Christian for 2 touchdown passes. A possible advantage Aurora Christian owns over Stillman Valley, and against any 3A foe, is athleticism and diversity on offense. Stillman has yet to face a spread offense in the playoffs, and Lalor may vary his 5-2 defense, featuring nose tackle Alberts, to counter that. "I think what it always comes down to being a running team like we are, is it's hard to simulate that in practice," Lalor said. After not being asked to run the ball more than 13 times in Aurora Christian's first two playoff games, tailback Legend Smith carried 25 times for 158 yards and touchdowns of 1 and 27 yards to counter an early 15-7 deficit to Seneca. Don Beebe said it and it's true -- it's difficult for opponents to focus on stopping Smith on the ground when they also need to prevent quarterback Austin Bray's passing game. The 6-4 junior has completed 94 of 186 passes for 1,675 yards, 24 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. His main targets remain Noah Roberts, Noah Hagerty and Brandon Walgren, who in the past two games has caught 15 passes for 338 yards and 3 touchdowns -- and may spring his version of the Wildcat pass on Stillman. Beebe doesn't see Lalor's defense veering too much from what's taken the Cardinals this far, but if Stillman loads the box he'll pass, and if they hang back in coverage he'll run. "We're going to stay with that philosophy, it's been doing pretty good," Beebe said. Despite the pressure bearing down Beebe -- who obviously has been here before as a player and as a coach -- hopes the Eagles enjoy the moment. "This is the best feeling you have as an athlete, when you achieve the game to get to the big show," he said. "Hopefully these kids know that, and so does Stillman Valley. It's always sad to see somebody go home after this game because everyone worked so hard. This is the greatest feeling in a win and the toughest feeling in a loss."
Next week: The winner advances to the Class 3A state championship against the winner between St. Joseph-Ogden (10-2) and Greenville (12-0).