Do NIC-10 playoff teams have great offenses or poor defenses? Or both?

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star

This was the worst season for NIC-10 offenses in 20 years.

Or the best season for defenses. Even undefeated league champion Hononegah scored only three offensive touchdowns in three games against the NIC-10's other top teams.

It’s hard to judge the conference before the football playoffs begin because there are no regular-season games outside the league. But that choice between great defenses and struggling offenses seemed like the one sure thing.

And then the first week of the playoffs happened.

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Hononegah, Harlem, Boylan and even Belvidere North looked almost impossible to stop at times in Illinois High School Association first-round games. But Hononegah, Harlem and North also had easily their worst defensive games of the season.

“I was as surprised as anybody,” Hononegah coach Brian Zimmerman said. “I had hoped with the size of our linemen and Stuart Hale’s running ability that we would be able to run the ball between the tackles the way we did. We had been stymied so many times during the season, but we had shown spurts. We gave a great glimpse Saturday of what we can do.”

Here is what happened last week, why it happened and what it means this Saturday when Hononegah, Harlem and Boylan play second-round games.

Zaire Sherman ran for 69 yards on six carries Saturday as Harlem ran for a Class 6A playoff 521 yards in a win over Crystal Lake South.

NIC-10 runs wild

Harlem set a Class 6A playoff record with 521 yards rushing in a 64-39 win over Crystal Lake South. Hononegah ran for 342 in a 53-29 win over Plainfield East. Boylan rushed for 266 yards in a 41-8 victory over Chicago Brooks. In a 27-22 loss, Belvidere North ran for 328 yards against Grayslake Central. Even in a lopsided 41-8 loss to No. 2 state-ranked Cary-Grove, East gained almost 200 yards on the ground.

How did this happen? It starts with a lot of rugged and talented running backs. Harlem’s Adrian Palos and Hononegah’s Hale bulled their way to 253 and 226 yards rushing. North quarterback Mason Weckler plowed up the middle for 105 yards.

But NIC-10 playoff teams surround their power runners with breakaway threats. DeAndre Young had 150 yards on 10 carries for Harlem and Zaire Sherman 69 yards on six carries when Palos wasn't trampling CL South. North’s two 150-pound sophomores, Nico Bertolino and Joseph Brown, combined for 173 yards on only eight carries and would have been over 200 without a disputed illegal motion penalty.

“You can’t predict who is getting the ball where,” Harlem coach Bob Moynihan said. “Teams have to pay attention to everyone.”

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Plainfield East and Crystal Lake South, who both finished 5-5, were also simply not as good as Hononegah (10-0) and Harlem (9-1).  Also, Plainfield, CL South and Grayslake were not used to playing teams as physical as Hononegah, Harlem and Belvidere North.

“Plainfield East doesn’t see a lot of heavy run attack like we showed them,” Hononegah’s Zimmerman said. “In their league, they see mostly spread passing teams. We took advantage of that and it worked for us.”

Hononegah ran way better against Plainfield East than it did in any of its four games against NIC-10 playoff teams.

“We saw some very good defenses this year in the conference,” Zimmerman said. “Hats off to Boylan’s defense and Belvidere North’s defense and Harlem’s defense. We struggled offensively against those teams.”

None of the NIC-10’s five playoff teams struggled to run last week.

“Our line was playing great,” said Young, who opened Harlem’s win with three straight runs for 34 yards. “Every time we got the ball, there was a hole.”

Plainfield East freshman Brandon Parades threw for 322 yards against Hononegah last week, raising questions about the pass defenses of NIC-10 teams heading into the second round of the playoffs this Saturday.

No defense against the pass

Maybe NIC-10 teams defended the run so well this year because they didn’t have to worry about the pass. The league’s five playoff teams have combined for one 200-yard passing game in 50 starts this year. Boylan sophomore Connor Dennis, who missed last week with a shoulder injury, threw for 232 yards in a 39-13 loss to Harlem. But he also threw four interceptions in that game.

“We had a lot of young quarterbacks taking over for some pretty experienced quarterbacks,” said Harlem coach Bob Moynihan, who had to replace the league’s all-time passing leader in James Cooper, Jr. “These quarterbacks didn’t get a lot of time to play before this year. James played for four years. Quarterbacking wasn’t as good this year, but it will probably be better next year.”

On the opposing side, three NIC-10 teams may have never faced better passing games in first-round playoff games than Plainfield East, Crystal Lake South and Grayslake Central presented last week. All three have passed for more than 2,000 yards. And all three had a fleet of talented receivers. As a result, Hononegah allowed 333 yards passing, Harlem 315 and, with the game on the line, North couldn't stop Grayslake on fourth-and-7 from its own 32 in the final minute.

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“Our pass defense may lack a little bit,” Harlem’s Moynihan said, “but the kid from Crystal Lake South (Justin Kowalak) was a three-year starter and their receivers were tall. It was not like he was throwing it around. He was throwing it up for grabs and they went up and got it.”

That may have been true as the game wore on and the Gators tried to keep up with Harlem, which was scoring on every possession, but the Huskies had trouble defending it. CL South wasn’t that far away from scoring even on a third-and-43 play when a deep pass down the sideline was perhaps a foot too long away from being an 80-yard touchdown near the end of the first half.

“That was very scary,” said Young, who also plays defensive back. “It was super hard to stop them. They were passing 80% of the time. We haven’t played a team that passes that much. That was scary.”

Harlem's DeAndre Young tackles Crystal Lake South receiver Colton Hess after a short pass reception in last week's playoff opener. Harlem gave up 315 yards passing last week but expects to do much better on pass defense in the second round of the playoffs Saturday.

What’s next?

Boylan didn’t have to complete a pass to rout Chicago Brooks. The Titans (7-3) won’t have that luxury this week against No. 1-ranked Oak Park Fenwick (8-2). But if Dennis returns at QB they may have the most balanced offense in the NIC-10, with Joe Appino and Mark Harris as receivers and Mekhi Glover and Rasheed Johnson running the ball.

Hononegah (10-0) plays Pekin (8-2), which is a fellow run-dominated team that throws fairly well but not often.

“With Pekin, we see a big mirror of ourselves,” Zimmerman said. “I think it will help us. We play against our own offense all season.”

Hononegah’s advantage may be that quarterback Isaac Whisenand is a two-year starter coming off a solid game (10-for-22 for 145 yards). And that its defense, while it gave up 322 yards passing, had four interceptions, giving it 19 on the year. Also, Hononegah did better against the pass in the second half and held Plainfield to minus-9 yards rushing on 30 carries, counting sacks.

“They had an H back that we didn’t account for coming out of the backfield,” Zimmerman said. “We saw him as a blocker, but he came out in a vertical route into an open spot. We count on our safeties to frequently come down on run support. They took advantage of that early. But after we fixed that, we didn’t see them hit the big ones.”

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As for Harlem, Moynihan doesn’t expect the No. 8-ranked Huskies to give up anywhere close to 300 yards in the air again, even if they get past No. 7 Lake Forest (8-2) Saturday.

“We have a lot of faith in our defense,” Moynihan said. “And with what’s remaining in 6A in our bracket, I don’t think there is a passing team like Crystal Lake left. They are all running teams.”

That includes Harlem. After three consecutive years of historic passing from James Cooper, Jr., the Huskies now have one of their greatest rushing attacks. And they don’t expect to stop now.

“What we do with our running game, they can’t just go out there and say, ‘Here is this, here is that. That’s what they do.’ We do a lot of different things than anyone else.

“We also have superb backs. I don’t know if anyone else has backs as big and fast as we do. DeAndre was coming off an injury, so he was light on his carries, but he proved he was healthy again. They have to pay attention to DeAndre. If they don’t, it’s going to hurt them.”

Matt Trowbridge: mtrowbridge@rrstar.com; @matttrowbridge