Scouting the football semifinals: Byron at IC Catholic, and Brother Rice at Wheaton North
Byron (12-0) at IC Catholic Prep (11-1)
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Last weekend: Byron 28, Reed-Custer 24; IC Catholic Prep 31, Princeton 7
Outlook: After winning three straight state championships from 2016-18, IC Catholic Prep is aiming for a return to the title game. The Knights, who have 25 kids in their varsity program, battle a deep and talented Byron team in a rematch of their 2017 semifinal game. Four years ago, the Knights posted a hard-fought 7-0 win over the Tigers en route to their second straight state title.
"Byron's explosive and a downhill running team," IC Catholic Prep coach Bill Krefft said. "They will grind you to the ground. They're mentally disciplined and get off the football strong. They're deeper than most 3A programs.
"They get off the football better than anyone we've seen. They're a high-level opponent and execute the details of the game really well, just a solid football team like the team we ran into four years ago. They're very physical."
IC Catholic assistant football coach Thomas Gibson III added that the Tigers, a run-first team, will be a big test for the defense. Byron's Chandler Binkley ran for 139 yards in last week's quarterfinal win to raise his season statistics to 1,142 yards and 15 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Ethan Palzkill has rushed for 720 yards and 10 touchdowns and Andrew Claunch raised his numbers to 480 yards and 9 touchdowns to highlight Byron's powerful rushing attack.
"(Byron) is a physical football team," Gibson said. "They run their offense really well. That's one of the reasons they've made it this far. We have to make sure we do our jobs and have to execute on every play because if we don't, it's a win for them.
"We all know that our job is not done yet. We're grateful for another week out at Plunkett. But it's onto the next opponent.
Krefft said sophomore quarterback Dennis Mandala is one of the factors behind his team's run to the semifinals. Mandala's moxie and leadership have helped stabilize the offense.
"Dennis is an exceptional football player," Krefft said. "He's really grown from day one of his freshman year. We took the handcuffs off Dennis right away. It normally takes years and years in our system to be comfortable, but Dennis has been from the very beginning, even in the COVID shortened season.
"Dennis learned a lot in year one and really applied it to year two. That's crazy. As a sophomore, he's become more consistent. He's played at a very high level."
Gibson credited the players for their dedication in the weight room and becoming leaders for the younger players. The Knights bounced back from an emotional 19-7 loss at Wheaton St. Francis in Week 8.
"Everyone has been playing lights out," Gibson said. "Our offensive line has taken over games due to their physicality and toughness. Our defensive line has won at the line of scrimmage, allowing our linebackers to run free. Conor McCoy has been a leader for us on defense with his communication and physicality."
Brother Rice (10-2) at Wheaton North (11-1)Class 7A
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Last weekend: Brother Rice 41, Mt. Carmel 28; Wheaton North 10, Willowbrook 3
Outlook: Wheaton North is making its first appearance in a state semifinal in 20 years, pulling out a grind-it-out victory over Willowbrook in the quarterfinals. The Falcons blew out Larkin and Hoffman Estates in their first two playoff games, but relied on their defense to knock off the Warriors. Through three playoff games, the Falcons have allowed just 11 points.
But the Crusaders are unquestionably the best offense that the Falcons' defense has faced in the playoffs. Brother Rice scored 41 points in a quarterfinal win over Mt. Carmel, which defeated Batavia 16-14 in the second round.
"Brother Rice is an extremely talented team that puts up a lot of points every week," Wheaton North coach Joe Wardynski said. "They have all the pieces in order to be successful -- a solid offensive line, a talented running back, speed at wide receiver and a quarterback who can run and pass.
"They have given up a lot of points in their games, but their defense is asked to be on the field for a lot of possessions based on how quickly their offense scores points."
Wheaton North wide receiver Seth Kortenhoeven said the best defense against the Crusaders' potent attack is a good offense.
"The key for our offense is to put up points," he said. "If the offense can score and keep the ball away from Brother Rice's offense, it will give us the best chance for winning. We know that Brother Rice's offense is elite, so if we can stop them from getting the ball, that will help our defense a lot."
Wardynski said he expects a hard-nosed matchup that might come down to special teams play or turnovers. The Crusaders' offense has scored at least 40 points in every game, except for a first-round 27-26 win over Wheaton Warrenville South.
"It sounds like coach-speak, but we will truly have to be good in all three phases of the game on Saturday," he said. "Only two teams have been able to outscore Brother Rice this year, so getting into a shootout with them isn't a good plan for anyone.
"Using our special teams to help control the field position will be important. Having fewer penalties and creating turnovers would definitely be advantageous for us."
The battle of two of the best quarterbacks in the state is another element to watch. Brother Rice quarterback Jack Lausch, a Notre Dame recruit, rushed for 253 yards and four touchdowns to spark a 35-point second-half explosion against Mt. Carmel. A dual-threat quarterback, Lausch can carve up a defense with his running or passing. Wheaton North quarterback Mark Forcucci, the DuKane Conference Offensive Player of the Year, is smart and runs the Falcons' offense with precision.
Kortenhoeven said the Falcons have to rely on their multitude of weapons on offense to attack the Crusaders.
"Our offense is special because we have so many playmakers," Kortenhoeven said. "If one of us is having an off night, someone else will step up and have a good game, which is really helpful because it's hard for teams to key on one player because we have so many people who can make plays. Another thing is our chemistry. Most of us have been friends and playing with each other for a long time."