The contrasting offensive styles provide the story line for Saturday’s Class 3A semifinal football playoff matchup between visiting Aurora Christian and Sterling Newman.
The second-seeded, well-grounded Comets and veteran coach Mike Papoccia will play host to Don Beebe’s No. 4 seeded high-flying Eagles in a 2 p.m. game at Sterling High School with a berth in next Friday’s state title game in Champaign on the line.
“We’re gonna try to play with 13 (on defense) and see if that works,” Papoccia said when asked to assess the challenge posed by the balanced attack of the former NFL wide receiver.
“They’ve got four or five skill kids the quality that most (coaches) would be lucky to have one of on their team. They’ve got size and speed and talent. There’s no doubt about it.”
Aurora Christian has gained a well-earned reputation for its strong passing game, and that’s true once again with senior QB Ryan McQuade accounting for all 2,748 of the team’s passing yards.
The Eagles, though, have been nearly 50-50 with their run-pass ratio this season. ACS averages 25.6 pass plays and 22.8 runs per game. Senior backs Joel Bouagnon (1,250 yards) and Brandon Mayes (750) lead a rushing attack that as accounted for 2,487 yards.
“In fact, it looks to me like they’ve been almost 60-40 run, of late. They’ve got some big linemen who can get a nice push up front and a couple of great running backs,” said Papoccia, who has an impressive .754 winning percentage (273-89) in his 33 seasons with four state titles and two runner-up finishes directing the Comets.
“Our defense has been very good all year long. We got here by playing hard and we rely on playing as a team. Everybody has to contribute.”
Newman will counter with a ball-control run-oriented wishbone offense led by a trio of running backs in 5-foot-10, 185-pound senior Nick Rude (177 carries, 1,148 yards), 5-7, 175-pound senior Brian Bahrs (149-871) and 5-5, 140-pound junior Jake Snow (75-572).
The Comets average 45.7 runs and just 4.4 passes each game. Junior QB A.J. Sharp is 15 of 37 for 301 yards, and the team has gained 3,128 yards on the ground and 427 through the air.
“We run the wishbone and some open sets,” Papoccia said. “What we like to do is get a lot (of defenders) in the box and then try to throw over the top. When we throw, we’re hoping to hit a TD or a big play.”
That’s what happened last week as the Comets hit a big pass on the way to a 20-7 lead, but then had to hold on as Wilmington took advantage of two special teams miscues — scoring on a faked punt and recovering a blocked punt in the end zone to pull within 28-26 — only to have the Newman defense stuff a game-tying two-point conversion late.
“They certainly are a sound football team, and probably one of the better defenses we’ve faced all year,” Beebe said. “It’s also a good wrestling school. They tackle well. You can see they’re well-coached.”