Scouting the Class 7A semifinal: Batavia at Benet
Class 7A semifinal
No. 4 Batavia (11-1) at No. 17 Benet Academy (9-3)
Game time: 1 p.m. Saturday at Benedictine University
How they got here: Batavia defeated No. 29 Glenbard North 21-7, No. 13 Wheaton North 20-17, OT; No. 12 Lincoln-Way West 20-10; Benet Academy defeated No. 16 Maine West 35-13, No. 1 Hononegah 26-0, No. 9 Lincoln-Way Central 14-10
Outlook: Benet Academy has advanced to a state semifinal for the second straight year. Batavia, the 2013 Class 6A champion, makes its third semifinal appearance in seven years, its first in 7A. Both teams play championship-caliber defense. The Redwings limited regular-season opponents to 8.9 ppg. They've allowed 23 total points in 3 playoff wins, including a shutout of No. 1 seed Hononegah, which entered averaging 36 ppg. Last week the Benet defense stopped Lincoln-Way Central on downs at the 34-yard line to seal a quarterfinal victory. That unit faces a Batavia offense led by senior quarterback Riley Cooper, who has thrown 3 touchdown passes in each Batavia playoff win. Five of those scoring strikes were thrown to 6-foot-5 senior Eric Peterson and 2 went to senior Tom Stuttle. Peterson has 29 receptions for 586 yards and 11 touchdowns. Stuttle has 27 catches for 364 yards and 4 touchdowns, including last week's 32-yard catch-and-run for the go-ahead touchdown. The Bulldogs rush for 162 yards per game with carries spread between four to six ball carriers, led by Jeremiah Evers (97 carries, 544 yards, 4 TD) and Reggie Phillips (104 carries, 461 yards, 5 TD). Batavia's offense has been consistent throughout the postseason, scoring 3 touchdowns per game. "We've seen great defenses throughout the playoffs and we've had to work hard and be creative to score every week," Batavia coach Dennis Piron said. "This week it's the same thing. We feel pretty good about our defense as well. I'm sure that's the story for every team that plays us: how do you manage to get offensive opportunities?" Sophomore Colin Gillespie has been Benet's quarterback since senior starter Matt Boyle suffered a thumb injury in a 24-14 loss to Nazareth on Sept. 22. Gillespie has thrown for 855 yards and 13 touchdowns with only 4 interceptions. His top three receivers are seniors Jack Eschenbach (36 rec., 554 yards, 5 TD), Ben Cooney (31-368-3) and Nick Keyes (27-277-1). Last week Gillespie connected with running back Ben Hickey on a 27-yard screen that went for a touchdown and he threw a 50-yard touchdown to Cooney to take a fourth-quarter lead. Hickey is Benet's leading rusher with 95 carries for 473 yards and 5 touchdowns. This is the first playoff offense Batavia has faced that isn't a power-run base. The Redwings rush for 150 yards per game out of spread formations. "They can still run power out of it and do some things slightly different from what we've seen," Piron said. "They have lineman on offense and defense and linemen matter in the playoffs. That's their thing -- they're a solid team without a lot of weaknesses. It takes everything you do to beat a team like that to advance." Stuttle leads the Batavia defense with 11 interceptions. Junior linebacker Luke Weerts has a team-best 109 tackles, followed by senior safety Michael Niemiec (107). Junior linebacker Michael Jansey leads the team with 11.5 sacks, followed by senior end Mike Bautch (9.5) and Weerts (8).
Aside from their Week 8 matchup against Marist when the Redwings allowed 38 points, this will be their toughest defensive test of the season. The good news is Benet is playing its best defense. The line was short-handed the last couple of weeks with Jackson Stephens out, but he's hopeful to return this week. In his absence Matt and Joe Kipp really stepped up on the interior of the line. Quarterback pressure from them and John Benish, who has 12 of the team's 32 sacks, will be critical against Cooper, who has thrown for 1,885 yards and 24 touchdowns against only 7 interceptions. Benet's defense, led by Connor Reid, Billy Lawler and Cooney have combined for 16 interceptions. Linebacker Devin Petersen is the team's leading tackler for a second straight season. Fellow linebacker Connor Burke went down with an injury last week, but there's confidence he'll be ready to go on Saturday.
Benet's offense is not as explosive as Batavia's, but it's been effective enough. Gillespie, who's thrown for 855 yards, is making his eighth start since Boyle went down with an injury. Like the Bulldogs, Benet utilizes its entire corps of receivers. Batavia's defense has been brilliant this season, notching four shutouts and holding four other teams to single-digit scoring. If the Redwings hope to have success, they need to take a page from Batavia's diversity. That means using the run game to take the pressure off Gillespie in the pass attack. Hickey is finally healthy, and it's shown in the playoffs. He's rushed for over 300 yards the last three games. Michael Wymer brings a nice change of pace, and the Bulldogs can't afford to lose sight of Gillespie keepers. Benet, which fumbled away the ball three times last week, must do a better job taking care of it against an opportunistic defense.
If Benet has an edge, it might be in the kicking game. Senior Victor Karam has 11 field goals on the season, including four he kicked in the Redwings' second-round win over Hononegah. In a close game Benet won't have to force a fourth-down conversion if Karam is within reasonable range.
Benet, in the playoffs for a program-record sixth straight season, is making its fifth semifinal appearance and its second straight. The Redwings made only one state title game appearance, losing to Morris in the 1984 Class 4A final. Batavia, in the playoffs for the eighth straight year, is in the semifinals for the fourth time. The Bulldogs finished second in Class 6A in 2006 and won the 6A title in 2013. These teams met once before when Batavia beat Benet 26-14 in the opening round of the 2004 Class 6A playoffs.
Advancement: The winner plays the winner of Saturday's semifinal between No. 18 Mt. Carmel (9-3) at No. 3 Lake Zurich (12-0) in the Class 7A state championship game at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb on Saturday, Nov. 25 at 4 p.m.