Becoming the state's most successful Division I football program has placed Northern Illinois in the national spotlight.
But this weekend, the state's top high school football programs will be on center stage in DeKalb. For the first time, NIU's Huskie Stadium will host the IHSA football state championship games and will continue to do so in alternate years with Illinois' Memorial Stadium.
Northwestern and Illinois don't have the right to brag about much in Saturday's meeting for the Land of Lincoln Trophy in Champaign. However, eight high school teams will have a lot to roar about this weekend when they claim state championship trophies at NIU.
Here's our annual look at who we think will raise them, starting with the big boys.
Loyola (12-1) vs. Naperville Central (10-3), 7 p.m.
The only thing missing from Loyola's return to prominence under former Illinois and NFL linebacker John Holecek has been a title trophy to join the one the school claimed in 1993. Naperville Central actually missed the playoffs last year but rebounded from that and a late 3-game losing streak this year for a shot to join the 1999 team as state champs.
Loyola is multi-dimensional with QB Jack Penn (2,500 total yards), WRs Owen Buscaglia and Joe Joyce and RB Julius Holley and has a rugged defense led by DL Charlie Pontarelli, LB Andrew Cerney and DB Jack Gleason. It also has Holecek's confidence as it won last week on a 2-point conversion pass and also executed a fake punt deep in its own territory.
Naperville Central also has plenty of threats in Illinois State-bound QB Jake Kolbe (2,600 total yards), RB Kevin Clifford, WR Ben Andreas and WR-DB Mike Kolzow, who had 2 INTs in last week's comeback win over Marist. The Redhawks are always tested by their DuPage Valley Conference schedule.
The pick: Naperville Central will hang tough, but Loyola will pull away and end the 20-year title drought 28-14.
Mt. Carmel (12-1) vs. Lake Zurich (12-1), 4 p.m.
This title game is for those who enjoy tough, hard-hitting defense. The first team to score -- or possibly the only team -- may be the winner as Mt. Carmel, last year's 8A champion, goes for its 12th title and Lake Zurich looks for one to go with the one it claimed in 2007.
Mt. Carmel's defense, led by Steve Richardson, Enoch Smith and Deonte Brown, is rock-solid. It is complemented by its option offense, led by Illinois-bound RB Matt Domer (1,299 yards, 14 TDs) and Jimmy Mickens (1,118, 13 TDs), which had no pass attempts last week.
Lake Zurich's emergence as one of the state's top programs the last decade has been based on defense and controlling the ball. Syracuse-bound LB Colton Moskal and RB-DB Sean Lynch lead the way, RB Ben Klett (625 yards, 17 TDs rushing and receiving) and improved QB Noah Allgood (1,342 yards) will keep opposing defenses on the field and K A.J. Trittschuh (8 field goals) is a big weapon.
The pick: These Bears from Lake Zurich, unlike their NFL counterparts, can shut down a running game and will win 10-7.
Richards (12-1) vs. Batavia (12-1), 1 p.m.
They meet again, three months after Richards beat Batavia 31-25 in Week 2. The only blemish for Richards was a 35-34 loss to Evergreen Park in Week 5 and the closest call for Batavia in its 11-game winning streak was its 19-14 quarterfinal with Lake Forest.
The challenge for Batavia's defense, led by MLB Anthony Thielk and all-state DB-WR Michael Moffatt, will be controlling junior all-state QB Hasan Muhammad-Rogers (2,700 total yards, 36 TDs). Richards' defense, which has 6 shutouts and is led by all-state LB Romel Hill (163 tackles, 18 for losses) and LB Andrew Venerable, will have to contain all-state RB Anthony Scaccia (1,725 yards, 25 TDs) and QB Micah Coffey (2,237 yards).
The pick: Week 2 was a long time ago and doesn't provide convincing evidence either direction. But Richards has met tough, tight-game challenges the last two weeks and will do it again 20-14.
Montini (13-0) vs. Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin (13-0), 10 a.m.
One thing Montini and coach Chris Andriano haven't done en route to titles the last four years is finish one of those seasons without a loss. SSHG, which has won three titles under Ken Leonard, technically doesn't have one after a 38-33 defeat to Rochester was turned into a forfeit victory by the IHSA.
Montini's offense has centered on QB Alex Wills (2,721 yards, 32 TDs) and WRs Leon Thornton III (54 catches, 966 yards, 13 TDs) and Tyler Tumpane (76-866, 10 TDs). The defense has been tremendous with Ohio State-bound DE Dylan Thompson (6-5, 275; 13 sacks, 22 tackles for losses) and OLB Nile Sykes, but MLB Mike Maduko, a three-year starter and the leading tackler, was on crutches from a left knee injury in Saturday's semifinals.
Maduko's status could be a big factor since SSHG has scored a state-record 706 points behind QB Gabe Green (3,126 yards) and WRs Malik Turner (65-1,311, 22 TDs) and Nate Lewis (48-900, 10 TDs).
The pick: Montini has been tested by a brutal schedule that includes Maine South and East St. Louis. The Broncos seem to find a way and will continue to do so and claim their sixth title overall 42-35.
Geneseo (12-1) vs. Rochester (12-1), 7 p.m.
The football-crazy community of Geneseo, just east of the Quad Cities, hasn't seen a losing season since 1961 but the last of its four titles was 31 years ago. Rochester is going for its fourth straight title under Derek Leonard and hasn't lost on the field, but a 38-33 win over Springfield Griffin became a forfeit loss when the school self-reported a violation of IHSA by-laws for title rings bought for some of its players that exceeded the allowable monetary limits.
Geneseo is still rooted in its traditional wing-T running game led by RB Rayce Singbush (996 yards, 14 TDs) to help a defense that has forced 40 turnovers. High-powered Rochester has QB Robbie Kelley (2,809 yards), WR Drew Hill (60 catches, 982 yards, 11 TDs) and RB Drake Berberet (1,515 yards, 31 TDs).
The pick: Rochester's title run won't stop here in a 35-21 win.
Stillman Valley (11-2) vs. St. Joseph-Ogden (11-2), 4 p.m.
These two are no strangers to the state stage, but with different results as Stillman Valley has won four titles since 1999 and St. Joe-Ogden is 0-4 in title games. Stillman Valley rebounded from a pair of losses to end the regular season with all-state RB-LB Zac Hare. St. Joe-Ogden overcame a 2-2 start and can run with Austin Hedrick (1,200 yards, 17 TDs) and Orion Ciota (1,156 yards, 14 TDs) and pass with Dalton Walsh (1,127 yards).
The pick: St. Joe-Ogden finally claims the big trophy 22-21.
Sterling Newman (12-1) vs. Staunton (9-4), 1 p.m.
Newman, which has won four titles under 31st-year coach Mike Papoccia, recovered from a season-opening loss with RB Jake Snow (1,584 yards, 28 TDs) and all-state linemen Jacob Barnes (6-3, 265) and Jakob Vetter. Staunton showed plenty of fight after limping out of the regular season with four losses by at least 20 points in its last five games, and then rallying from a 10-point deficit in the last 5:17 of its semifinal behind do-it-all QB-DB Jake Bruhn.
The pick: Newman keeps rolling and ends Staunton's magical ride 40-14.
Lena-Winslow (10-3) vs. Downs Tri-Valley (13-0), 10 a.m.
Le-Win won a title in 2010 and has balance with RB Tyler Oakley (1,506 yards, 16 TDs) and QB Ben Moest (1,275 passing). Tri-Valley had never won a playoff game until last year and has literally run its way to NIU with all-state RB Braden Herrmann (1,398, 22 TDs), Caleb Wilson (1,235, 18 TDs) and QB Peyton Roop (868, 11 TDs) behind all-state OL-DL Lucas Hammer.
The pick: Tri-Valley puts the perfect finish on its sudden rise to glory 28-20.
• Marty Maciaszek is a freelance columnist for the Daily Herald who can be reached at email@example.com.