Morris eyes rebound vs. Sacred Heart-Griffin

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Some state high school football champions have been declared dominant once their title has been achieved.

But if you review history, seldom does anyone go 5-0 in the playoffs without having to gut out a victory or two along the way.

That may become the story for Morris, which is home at 3 p.m. Saturday for a Class 5A semifinal against Sacred Heart-Griffin. The winner earns a berth in the Nov. 24 state final vs. Joliet Catholic or Montini.

The visitors from Springfield (11-1), much like Morris, are a traditional power. And if the Redskins (11-1) do not play better than they did Saturday, when they rallied from a 21-7 fourth-quarter deficit at Washington to win 28-27 in overtime, there could be a problem.

The escape came on the heels of the 65-20 spanking Morris laid on Urbana in Round 2. Urbana was an opponent some thought could challenge the Redskins.

“The Urbana game was almost a perfect game,” Morris coach Alan Thorson said. “It worked out to be the kind of game where everything clicked, where you could have fun and just sit back and watch.

“When we went down to Washington, maybe the bus ride had something to do with how we played. But give them credit. They played an outstanding game against us. And we by far did not play our best game.

“But this group we have is a fighting group. When they have to turn it up, they will. For us to come out of that game with a victory says a lot about our character.”

Defensive end/tight end Danny Friend, the face of the franchise who has committed to Indiana, said the goal from the time this year’s seniors were freshmen has been to leave with a state title, and that remains the focus.

“We watched them (Sacred Heart-Griffin) on film, and we feel pretty good,” Friend said. “They like to run the ball. They play a pretty simple defense. I hope we can take it to them.”

Sacred Heart-Griffin, which lost to Joliet Catholic 49-7 in the 2011 semifinals, has averaged 41.7 points and will test a solid Morris defense. Running back Chris Harris has rushed for 1,624 yards and averages 9.7 per carry, running back Tavion Whitaker has gone for 737 and a 6.9 average, and sophomore quarterback Gabe Green has added 665 and averages 5.2.

Green has the ability to throw, completing 120-of-178 passes, including plenty of bubble screens, for 1,622 yards and 17 touchdowns. However, veteran coach Ken Leonard’s team prefers the ground game.

“They’re a very good team,” Thorson said. “They run a little different offense. They give you a spread look, which we have seen multiple times, and they do run a no-huddle, which saw against Urbana and others.

“But the thing that makes them unique is they really do run the ball a majority of the time and run it well out of the spread. It will be a good match-up against our defense, which we feel is the strength of our team. We are hoping that is what gets us to state.”

Friend, who was named Northern Illinois Big 12 East Defensive Player of the Year, agrees on the importance of defense.

“We have had a good year defensively,” he said. “The whole team has been consistent on defense.”

While Friend, whom Thorson says is “a leader on and off the field and one of the best football players I have ever seen or coached,” has lived in the spotlight, he enjoys discussing his teammates.

“We have a lot of people on this team who are talented,” he said. “(Lineman) Craig Claire is really a hard worker. (Linebacker/running back) Jeff Perry is going to Central Michigan on a full ride. Nik Countryman, to me, is one of the best linebackers in the state. Brian Henry does a great job in the offensive line. Our kicker, Fernando DelToro, I think has missed two extra points all year.”

From an offensive perspective, the Redkins are similar to Sacred Heart-Griffin in that they favor the run, but with the ability to throw as needed.

Zach Cinnamon, in his first season in the program after transferring from Streator, has completed 46-of-77 passes for 835 yards and 10 touchdowns. Wide receiver Anthonee Monson and Friend are the top two targets.

In the running game, senior Reese Sobol, on fire of late, has rushed 155 times for 1,320 yards and 18 touchdowns. He averages 8.5 yards per carry. Perry has chipped in with 488 yards and defensive tackle Collin Grogran, who doubles at fullback, has 457. Cinnamon has contributed another 371.

“This senior class has lost three games in four years,” Thorson noted. “They wanted to win a state title from the start and won’t be satisfied with anything less. With that being said, we have a very good Sacred Heart-Griffin team in our way.”

However, the game is at Morris.

“That’s huge,” Thorson said. “We couldn’t have scripted it any better than to be home for the semis.”

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