Conant senior quarterback Matt Cullen doesn't feel as if he has been under the proverbial gun as much this season.
That has led to a marked difference in his own production and his team's success. Cullen has completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 1,510 yards with 16 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions and the Cougars (6-3) are making their first playoff appearance in five years when they go to Elk Grove (8-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday for a Class 7A opener.
"The game has really slowed down for me," Cullen said after Conant's Week 8 playoff-clinching win over Schaumburg. "I know what I'm looking for and I know what I'm going to see before I get out there and make my decisions."
A year ago, Cullen threw for 1,042 yards with 6 touchdowns and 8 interceptions as the Cougars finished 2-7. A big reason for their turnaround this year is an area-best turnover ratio of plus-15 with only six giveaways.
"He's had a good run here and that's pretty impressive," Conant coach Bill Modelski said of Cullen's touchdown-to-turnover ratio. "The Achilles heel for him last year was he gave the ball up quite a bit.
"Now he's done a really good job of protecting it. I give him a lot of credit."
The 6-foot-1, 184-pound Cullen passes on a lot of the credit to guys in front of him in Toledo-bound tackle Paul Perschon, Andrew Engel, Kevin Modelski, John Schaul, Mike Smith, Alex Pope and Nick Blaha.
"It's definitely about trusting my linemen," Cullen said. "Last year I didn't have much trust and I was running around frantically back there.
"Now I'm able to sit back and make decisions because they're doing a better job."
Cullen also has a talented receiving crew led by junior Tim Manczko (54 catches, 696 yards, 7 TDs) and seniors Tom Zidek and Jake Valas.
When Cullen had to come out of a Week 7 loss to Barrington, Manczko moved over to quarterback. Against Schaumburg, Cullen threw for 143 yards and Manczko rushed for 120 out of the Wildcat formation to give opposing defenses a variety of things to consider in their game plans.
"If we're getting yards all that matters is winning," Cullen said. "All that matters is winning and I'll be right there cheering them on as they get off the field.
"It's a good asset to have and a good weapon."
Just as Matt Cullen has been a big asset and weapon in Conant's resurgence.