SCOUTING THE CLASS 5A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP
No. 7 Vernon Hills Cougars (10-3) vs. No. 1 Peoria Lions (12-1)
When: 10 a.m., Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, University of Illinois, Champaign
Road to the state championship: Vernon Hills def. Chicago Urban Prep/Bronzeville, 56-6, Nazareth, 10-2 and Woodstock Marian, 17-0, Sycamore, 21-16; Peoria def. Dunlap, 21-9, Decatur Eisenhower, 96-40, Washington, 68-46, Morris, 43-35.
Playoff history: Vernon Hills is making its 11th playoff appearance overall and its second straight. This is the Cougars' first state championship game. Peoria is making its 14th playoff appearance overall and its fourth straight. This is the Lions' first state championship game.
Coaches: Bill Bellecomo, Vernon Hills; Tim Thornton, Peoria
Skinny: If you like offense, this game is for you. If you like defense, don't worry, this game is for you, too. Peoria can provide fireworks on offense while Vernon Hills can rev it up defensively … Peoria advanced to the state championship game with an eye-popping offense that is setting all kinds of records while averaging 57.2 points per game. The Lions scored a season-high 96 points in their second-round playoff victory over Decatur Eisenhower (96-40) and scored 70 or more points four times on the season and 60 or more points seven times. "The up-tempo is nice for us because everything that the kids do that is not football is up-tempo," Peoria coach Tim Thornton told the Peoria Journal Star. "They get their media up-tempo, they play their video games up-tempo, they get their food up-tempo, everything they do is in a hurry. We just had a group that has a lot of energy and so we just embraced it." Peoria runs 61.2 plays per game and averages 548.9 yards per game (7,159 total yards on the season). The Lions need just 2 points in today's game to set the new state scoring record for points in a season. Oh, and the 83 rushing touchdowns Peoria has so far this season is already a state record as well. "They score so fast. It's ridiculous," Vernon Hills coach Bill Bellecomo said of Peoria. "They can take you to the end zone at any time with their up-tempo speed option offense. We have to contain them." Peoria is led by junior running back Geno Hess, who has rolled up 2,597 rushing yards on 286 carries for an average of 9.1 yards per carry. He's scored 43 touchdowns on the season, 42 on the ground. Quarterback Coran Taylor is versatile. He can run too, and has rolled up 1,537 rushing yards on 162 carries for an average of 9.5 yards per carry. He's scored 19 rushing touchdowns. Meanwhile, Taylor has completed 82 of 157 passes for 1,327 yards and 15 touchdowns. His main target is Aaron Lowers, who has caught 34 passes for 730 yards. Jaleen James is yet another 1,000-yard rusher for the Lions. (They have three.) He's rushed for 1,313 yards on 143 carries for an average of 9.2 yards per carry. He's scored 21 rushing touchdowns … The Vernon Hills defense will certainly have its hands full. But the Cougars are the reason lovers of defense will want to watch this game. Vernon Hills has ridden its strong defense all season. It was the stingiest in the Central Suburban League and is allowing just 11.7 points per game. The Cougars pitched 2 shutouts this season, including a 17-0 win over Marian Central Catholic in the quarterfinals, and have allowed 10 or fewer points six times this season. "We have great athletes on defense, we fly to the ball and we fly all over the field with our speed," Bellecomo said. "We are fast and physical and probably faster than most of the defenses Peoria has seen this season, and I don't think we've played our best yet. We're hoping that will happen in (Champaign). We just can't (get down if Peoria has some success). We know they will make plays and will score some points. We just have to make them work for it and not allow big plays. We have to contain them and control what we can." The Vernon Hills defense is led by linebacker Andrew "Chick" Smith, who has 152 tackles on the season and was just named first-team all-state. Linebackers Jeff Rosenstock and James Hommer have rolled up 81.5 tackles and 54.5 tackles respectively ..… Bellecomo says that his offense could also be a big help to his defense. If Vernon Hills can sustain long drives and take care of the ball and avoid turnovers, it can keep Peoria's potent offense off the field and languishing on the sidelines. "We have been really good at controlling the ball in the playoffs," Bellecomo said. "(Quarterback) Kyle Hull did a great job of that against Sycamore (in the semifinals last week). That will really help our defense." … Hull has passed for 1,512 yards and 15 touchdowns on the season, completing 130 of 207 passes. His top targets are Drew Winegardner (51 catches for 551 yards) and Chris Mariella (47 catches for 601 yards). Hull also leads the team with 337 rushing yards…The Peoria defense is led by lineman Kendrick Green, who has 109 tackles.
-- Patricia Babcock McGraw