2021 IHSA football state championship games: What to watch and predictions

The Illinois High School Association football state championships are here.

Sixteen of the state's best teams will meet in eight title games scheduled for Friday at Saturday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, on the campus of Northern Illinois.

Below is information about each title game plus predictions from one of the sports reporters from Gannett Illinois family of newspapers in Rockford, Peoria or Springfield.

Here are their record headed into championship weekend: Jay Taft (Rockford Register Star) 79-10 (.887) 14-0 in the playoffs; Adam Duvall (Peoria Journal Star) 114-43 (.726); and Bill Welt (Springfield State Journal-Register) 142-38 (.789). Ryan Mahan (State Journal-Register) and and Matt Trowbridge (Register-Star) also selected some of the games.

Want to watch?:How to watch IHSA football playoffs on TV

Lena-Winslow's Marey Roby dives in to pick up the first down against Ridgeview at Lena-Winslow High School on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Lena.

CLASS 1A

Carrollton (12-1) vs. Lena-Winslow (11-2), 10 a.m. Friday

Le-Win is gunning for its third state title in the past four years, losing last in the playoffs to NUIC rival, and eventual state champs Forreston in 2018. The Panthers have leaned heavily on senior halfback Marey Roby throughout this playoff run as he has amassed 735 yards and scored 13 TDs on the ground in Le-Win's four postseason games. But if Carrollton keys on Roby, the Panthers do have other weapons, like running back Ethan Fye (129-1,118, 16 TDs on the season) and QB Luke Benson (363 passing yards this season, and two rushing TDs last week). Carrollton coach Nick Flowers, on the other hand, will look to get leadership from his son, star defensive end as well as tight end Hayden Flowers, and his brother Rodney Flowers, the defensive coordinator. Carrollton hasn't lost since a 30-22 season-opening defeat to Camp Point Central, which bowed out in the second round of the 1A playoffs. Le-Win lost twice this season: in Week 7 to Durand/Pecatonica, the NUIC champs out of 3A, and in Week 9 to Forreston, which the Panthers avenged in the second round of the playoffs. This is another chance for Le-Win to finish off with a dominant win. 

Jay Taft's prediction: Le-Win 36, Carrollton 21

Class 1A football state championship: Le-Win vs. Carrollton

CLASS 2A

Wilmington (13-0) vs. Nashville (12-1), 1 p.m. Friday

Top-ranked Wilmington looks to make a repeat of 2014 when it won the Class 3A state championship. Defense stepped up big time for the Wildcats in their 42-14 semifinal victory over previously undefeated and fourth-ranked Downs Tri-Valley, which gained only 197 yards on 45 plays. Offensively, Wilmington kept it on the ground in the semis, amassing 324 yards led by Colin James (155 yards, two TDs) and Jacob Friddle (117 yards, two TDs). Ninth-ranked Nashville is back in the state title game for a second successive season. A last-second field goal completed a 14-point comeback for the Hornets. Nashville QB Kolten Gajewski (205 passing yards, three TDs), running back Connor Gladson (137 rushing, two TDs; 18-yard TD catch) and wideout Isaac Turner (128 receiving yards, two TDs) are the offensive catalysts.

Adam Duvall's Prediction: Wilmington 49, Nashville 28

Byron's Chandler Binkley drives to the goal line for Byron's second TD with five seconds left in the fourth quarter of the state semifinal game in Elmhurst on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Byron beat IC Catholic 15-14.

CLASS 3A

Byron (13-0) vs. Tolono Unity (13-0), 4 p.m. Friday

The 3A title comes down to a battle of the unbeatens, with both programs coming in hungry. Byron lost the last two 3A state championship games by four points each, and Unity has finished second in the state five times in program history, including in 2015. Unity lost in the second round of the 4A playoffs in 2017 and 2019, but is back down in 3A this postseason, and has used two blowout wins and two close victories to get to the championship game. Unity had to rally late to overcome previously unbeaten Mount Carmel 28-21 last week. Byron has also needed late-game heroics to stay alive, scoring with nine seconds left to beat Reed-Custer 28-24 two weeks ago, and scoring with five seconds left (and adding a 2-point conversion) to win 15-14 over Elmhurst IC Catholic in Saturday's semis. This Byron team is different than those before it: this group knows how to win close games down the stretch. 

Jay Taft's prediction: Byron 27, Tolono Unity 24

'Call 126-counter':Breaking down the final ticks of Byron's dramatic semifinal win

Sacred Heart-Griffin's KeShon Singleton (5) celebrates with the Cyclones as they defeat Rochester in the IHSA Class 4A semifinals at Rocket Booster Stadium in Rochester, Ill., Friday, November 19, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Class 4A

Joliet Catholic (13-0) vs. Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin (12-1), 7 p.m., Friday

The No. 3 Cyclones at one point trailed Rochester 25-7 in the second quarter before a couple of turnovers triggered the comeback and junior quarterback Ty Lott threw a couple of TD passes to Kyle Long in the fourth quarter to secure the semifinal victory. These offenses are quite polar opposites, but equally prolific. No. 1 JCA likes to go run heavy with Vinny Iannantone and not to mention Illinois-bound senior running back Jordan Anderson, who has been limited this season by injury. Both total more than 1,000 rushing yards, but the Hilltoppers also have all-state QB Aidan Voss to boot. Lott leads the Cyclones and has completed 176 of 234 passing attempts for 2,902 yards and 42 TDs with just two INTs this season. Juniors KeShon Singleton (47 catches for 618 yards and 12 TDs) and Jake Hamilton (46 receptions for 809 yards and nine TDs) compose a deep roster of receivers.

Bill Welt's prediction: JCA 35, SHG 28

SHG semi:Sacred Heart-Griffin rallies to thrilling Class 4A semifinal victory at Rochester

Class 5A

Oak Park Fenwick (11-2) vs. Kankakee (13-0), 10 a.m. Saturday

These two top-ranked programs are making their respective debuts at the state finals. Second-ranked Kankakee scored 35 unanswered points in its 41-14 semifinal victory over Morton. Kays QB Tomele Staples (143 passing yards, three TDs) along with RBs Jyaire Hill (96 rushing yards, TD) and Karson King (74 rushing yards, TD) and WR Pierre Allen (60 yards on five catches) make for a pretty potent offense. Fenwick, ranked No. 1 in the final poll, showed off its defense in its 17-6 semifinal win, holding Sycamore to just one score — midway through the third quarter. The Friars offense has three Division-I players led by QB Kaden Cobb (Ball State; 259 passing yards, TD) as wells WRs Eian Pugh (Illinois) and Max Reese (Eastern Michigan). Also, look for RB Danny Kent (71 yards) to eat up yards. 

Adam Duvall's Prediction: Kankakee 42, Oak Park Fenwick 41

Class 6A

East St. Louis (11-2) vs. Cary-Grove (13-0), 1 p.m. Saturday

East St. Louis was ranked No. 1 in the final poll and Cary-Grove No. 2. East St. Louis got here with playoff wins by 66, 54, 21 and 41 points. Cary-Grove has won by 34, 28, 21 and 33 points. Cary-Grove has 500 more students (1,617) than East St. Louis, which voluntarily chooses to move up a class almost every year. Only four teams in the state chose to move up this year, and all four reached the state semis, with East St. Louis and Joliet Catholic in 4A reaching the state title game and Elmhurst IC in 3A and Wilmette Loyola in 8A losing last week. East St. Louis has had one losing season in 20 years and responded to that 3-6 season in 2015 with two undefeated state championship seasons in the next four years and maybe a third state title this year. The Flyers have nine state titles and have taken second three times. Cary-Grove is in the state title game for the fifth time since 2009 and has won two state titles. East St. Louis has 2,942 yards rushing and 2,834 passing, with sophomore Robert "Pops" Battle passing for 2,662 yards and running for 376. The Flyers have lost to a team from Florida and one from California, but won't lose in-state.

Matt Trowbridge's prediction: East St. Louis 42, Cary-Grove 28.

Class 7A

Wheaton North (12-1) vs. Chicago St. Rita (11-2), 4 p.m. Saturday

Wheaton North and St. Rita were ranked Nos. 3 and 4 in the final poll. St. Rita's closest playoff game was 36-16 over No. 7 Rockton Hononegah in the third round. a game the Mustangs trailed at halftime. Wheaton North's closest playoff games were a 10-7 third-round win over Willowbrook and an 18-point semifinal win over No. 1-ranked Chicago Brother Rice. St. Rita is led by QB Thomas Ulatowski (1,535 yards passing, 408 rushing) and Ohio State recruit Kaleb Brown at receiver. Wheaton North has three state titles, but none in the last 35 years. Mark Forcucci, Wheaton North's third-year starting QB, was 12-for-16 for 170 yards and two TDs last week and North threw another TD pass on a trick play. North also caught a break when Brother Rice's star QB, Notre Dame baseball recruit Jack Lausch, was restricted to passing and not running because of an injury. St. Rita, with a healthy QB, gets the nod in a nail-biter:

Matt Trowbridge's prediction: St. Rita 28, Wheaton North 27

CLASS 8A

Lockport (12-1) vs. Park Ridge Maine South (12-1), 7 p.m. Saturday

No. 4 Lockport’s lone loss this season — 12-10 against Lincoln-Way East came without the Porters’ all-state quarterback, the 6-foot-7, 235-pound Hayden Timosciek. The Porters took down Class 8A favorite Wilmette Loyola 35-21 in the semifinals. Lockport also has another all-state first-teamer in defensive lineman Andrew Blackburn-Forst (6-3, 235) and an honorable-mention pick with linebacker and receiver Ethan Gallagher (6-4, 195). No. 6 Maine South have beaten a host of quality teams and all-state running back Mike Sajenko (6-0, 197) has 14 touchdowns in four playoff games, including five in the Hawks’ 35-33 semifinal win over Chicago Marist. Northwestern tight end commit Chris Petrucci missed Maine South’s game in the hospital with a lacerated spleen, which makes him questionable — at least — for Saturday’s game. 

Ryan Mahan’s prediction: Lockport 42, Maine South 31