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State Finals: Lena-Winslow vs Carrollton

The Panthers are back in DeKalb for the 4th time in 5 opportunities, and await the Hawks for a shot at the title

We enter the final week of the football season and what is a time honored tradition has become more of a right of passage for the NUIC. Lena-Winslow becomes the 11th team from the NUIC to reach the IHSA state finals since 2010. This is the 5th trip to state for the Panthers over that same time frame, while Coach Ric Arand put his own stamp on the state final scene becoming the first NUIC coach to reach the championship game 5 times.

On the other side of the field are the Carrollton Hawks, who are making their 2nd trip to the state championship game since 2014. The Hawks lost to the Forreston Cardinals in their lone title game appearance, 20-15. Coach Nick Flowers has been leading the Carrollton Hawks for 18 seasons now, and has posted a 134-57 record in his tenure. Since the 2012 season the Hawks have made the quarterfinals 5 times, so they are not unfamiliar with top level of play.

The Hawks enter this game with a record of 12-1, having won 12 straight since their week 1 loss to Camp Point Central 30-22, where the Hawks gave up a 22-8 lead in the 4th quarter. When asked about the season, Coach Flowers said, "The Camp Point Central loss in week 1 was a good loss for us." They put on a rout in the remainder of their regular season schedule, winning by 18 points or more the rest of the way. That 18 point win came against rival Greenfield-Northwestern with a 34-16 decision in a week 6 matchup.

In the playoffs the Hawks have been more battle tested. They destroyed Shelbyville 47-7 in round 1, but had to gut out a 14-6 win over Greenfield-Northwestern in a round 2 rematch. Once they entered the quarterfinals they knocked off the team many favored to get to the title game, Athens, pulling out a 28-26 victory. Last week they booked their trip to DeKalb with a 28-14 win over Central A&M, where a last minute touchdown prior to halftime gave them a 20-14 lead at the break and helped give them the momentum to close out the win and shutout the Raiders in the 2nd half.

Lena-Winslow started the season on a tear, outscoring opponents 226-13 through the first 5 weeks. Then they played a 3A Chicago Catholic League team in DePaul Prep that was much better than their record indicated, as the Panthers came away with a 38-27 win. They followed that up with a big matchup at home with 3A Du-Pec, where the Rivermen staved off a comeback attempt by Le-Win to pull out the win, 30-24. The Panthers then had a bit of a battle with rival Stockton before eventually putting them away handily, and entered week 9 at home with Forreston. The Cardinals were able to do things to Le-Win and pull out a come from behind win with no time left to give the Panthers their 2nd loss, 22-20. Coach Arand stated, "The best thing to happen to us was Forreston beating us."

Since the playoffs began the Panthers have been playing consistent to what we saw in the first half of the season. They beat Aurora Christian for the 3rd straight year, 54-7. In round 2 they went down to Forreston and walked away with a 38-8 win, a game that saw Le-Win score on every drive the starters were in the game to avenge their loss from 2 weeks prior. That brought on another rematch, this one with Fulton. The final score doesn't truly reflect the dominance that the Panthers brought in that game, but Fulton gave them a battle for about as long as they could, as Le-Win walked into the semifinals with a 54-28 win. Last week the Panthers had a sluggish 1st half, but held a halftime lead 8-6 before coming out in the 2nd half and dominating the final 24 minutes to earn their trip to DeKalb.

When asked how his season has gone in his thoughts, Coach Arand said, "We played really well early and peaked in week 5. After that there was a lull in the season. We lost 2 of the last 4 against Du-Pec and Forreston, both games at home." He later stated, "Forreston beat us up front on both sides of the ball and that doesn't happen too often. In fact, over the years it's been Forreston to do it and that is it."

Carrollton is led by QB/LB Grant Pohlman, who is an all-stater for the Hawks. Missing his entire junior year due to surgery, he has emerged as the QB many envisioned he would be had a full 2020 schedule been played. The offense runs through him, as he is the team's leading rusher with 1,396 yards and 25 TD's. He has passed for 1,642 yards and 21 TD's. On defense he has 64 tackles on the season with 22 for a loss. Contributing to the run game with Pohlman is Harley Angel, who has rushed for 1,291 yards and 23 TD's on the season. Angel is the middle linebacker on defense and leads the Hawks in tackles with 100, and 22 for a loss.

One of the keys to success for Le-Win is stopping the run game. Coach Ric Arand stated in his press conference, "For us to win we have to shut down their run game and control the line of scrimmage." This always seems like a traditional statement, but Carrollton operates out of a spread offense, and they run the ball 68% of the time from it.

Coach Nick Flowers had this to say about his running back, Harley Angel; "Harley is a physical runner. Harley can run trap really well and we run counter trey. He comes out of the backfield on screens." As for their offense Flowers stated, "We're a spread type set, but we're a physical spread team."

Helping out in the offense is the play of all-state WR Kyle Leonard, who has 726 yards and 12 TD's through the air on the season. Both coaches had praise for Leonard, as Arand stated, "Number 2 (Leonard) is a concern for us. He has great hands." Leonard also has 66 tackles and 5 INT's on the season from his DB position, and will be relied on to help shut down Le-Win's potent rushing attack. Flowers added, "Kyle is one of those receivers if you don't double team him he will find a way to get open. He's a really good route runner, good hands."

Their offensive power also includes WR Gus Coonrod, who has 427 yards and 6 TD's through the air. On defense he plays at outside linebacker and has 73 tackles. The offense goes as the offensive line goes, and that line is led by Ethan Harrelson (LT), Matt Beiermann (LG), Travis Evans (C), Willie Gilmore (RG), and Matt Camden (RT). Lining up at TE is Hayden Flowers, who will be in a tight set in the spread offense. The line averages around 220 pounds. Coach Flowers doesn't expect the game to be pretty, but said, "It will be physical and we have some boys ready for the challenge."

On defense, the Hawks will run a 5-3, and may transition into 5-4 later on, a formation they went to against Athens, a running team that specializes in the double wing offense. Defensive ends Hayden Flowers (86 tackles, 18 for a loss) and Matt Camden (85 tackles, 14 for a loss) set the edge, which allows linebacker Angel and DB Boden Flowers (92 tackles) to fly to the ball. They will get inside defensive line play from Travis Evans (NT), Willie Gilmore (DT), and Ethan Harrelson (DT).

The Panthers will feature a pair of 1,000 yard rushers in running backs Ethan Fye and Marey Roby. They have combined for 2,639 yards and 36 TD's on the season. Add in the running of fullback Brady Eilders, and he brings an additional 677 yards and 8 TD's to a backfield that averages over 7 yards per carry. Fye and Eilders double as linebackers, and both have 66 tackles on the season helping a defense that flies to the ball and is geared to shut down the run game.

At QB is Luke Benson, who doesn't throw often, but when he does he is usually on the money with his passes. He has 374 yards and 6 TD's on the season, plus an additional 5 TD's on the ground. He controls the tempo of this offense and manages it well.

Leading the line up front is Maddex Sargent (C), who played left tackle on the 2019 team that won state, joining Roby and Benson as the 3 starters who also started on that team as sophomores. At guard will be Henry Engel (RG) and Jake Tippett (LG), with the tackles being held down by Ross Stabenow (RT) and Tyler Croatt (LT). At TE is senior all-stater Brody Mahon, who also leads this Panther defense in tackles on the season. While he doesn't get a lot of attention offensively, he is a critical blocker in the Panthers running offense.

One of the biggest concerns for Coach Flowers is the physicality of Le-Win, stating, "Le-Win has had some teams hang with them at the beginning of the game being physical, but in the 2nd half they wear teams out."

Defensively the Panthers will come out in their base 4-3, and will adjust from there with either a cover 2 or cover 4, depending on what they see from Carrollton and other adjustments they may make. Sophomore DE Gage Dunker is 2nd on the team in tackles with 67. Maisen Smith has picked up some big plays throughout the year, filling in at DE, while picking up 48 tackles on the season. The defensive backfield is led by Roby, but also features Zach White, Benson, and Jake Zeal, who can also come up as a strong safety or play a linebacker role.

When you begin to look at comparisons, one must start with scoring output and overall defense allowed. When you begin in the regular season, Carrollton holds an advantage, as they averaged 50.2 points per game while allowing 16.6 points per game for a differential of a 33.6 scoring margin. Looking at the Panthers, they averaged 39.6 points per game while allowing 10.9 points per game in the regular season for a margin of victory of 28.7.

When you look at the entire season to date, the gap between both teams closes. Carrollton is averaging 43.8 points per game while allowing 15.5 points per game for a scoring margin differential of 28.3 on average. Le-Win is putting up 40.8 points per game and allowing 11.8 points per game for a differential of 29.0 on average, which gives the Panthers a slight advantage.

The next comparison would be all games against teams that made the playoffs, including playoff opponents. The Hawks drop off here by a TD per game, scoring 36.4 points per game and allowing 19.8 points per game for a differential of 16.6 points per game, an average separation that is 2 TD's lower than the regular season and full season averages. The Panthers average 36.5 points per game, while allowing 14.3 points per game for a differential of 22.2 points per game. Their scoring output dropped only 4 points per game, but their margin of separation dropped by a TD.

Then we have the current performance in the playoffs, and this is where things become more eye opening. Carrollton has averaged 29.3 points per game, 3 TD's less per game than the regular season. They have allowed 13.3 points per game, which is lower than the regular season points allowed, but their margin of victory is 16.0, a full 2 TD's plus another point lower than their regular season differential. When you look at the 2nd round through the semifinals, they are averaging 23.3 points per game, allowing 15.3 points per game, for a margin of victory of 8.0 on average.

Le-Win has picked it up in the playoffs, where they are averaging 43.5 points per game in the playoffs, higher than their regular season, full season, and against teams that made the playoffs averages. They have allowed 13.8 points per game, which puts their average margin of victory at 29.7, higher than the regular season and total season. From the 2nd round to the semifinals the Panthers are averaging 40.0 points per game, while allowing 16.0 points per game. If you take out the 2 TD's that Fulton scored against subs in the quarterfinals, Le-Win is outscoring their playoff opponents by an average margin of 40-11, which is still a 29.0 point separation, consistent with their regular season and full season margin of victory.

What this tells us is a couple of things. The trend for Carrollton has gone down from the regular season into the playoffs, whereas the Panthers have increased their outputs from the regular season. And taking away 1st round opponents, Carrollton is scoring 27 points per game less from the regular season, compared to Le-Win which is still averaging 40.0 points per game, consistent with their regular season scoring average.

For the purpose of data collection and statistical reporting, this would show an extreme downward trend for the Hawks, while Le-Win would show a consistent, and slight uptick in their overall performance since the playoffs began. In championship games you want to be playing your best ball, and the results show the Hawks are on a decline, whereas Le-Win battled their inconsistencies in weeks 6-9 to close out the regular season. Since then they are trending upward and playing some really good football, back on par with the beginning of the season.

From the Freeman Ratings, Le-Win has a strength of schedule of 7.3 on the season, while Carrollton's strength of schedule is -2.3, which partly explains the large drop-off from regular season performance to the playoffs due to lack of better competition in the regular season. The average strength of schedule for all opponents who made the playoffs for Le-Win is 3.9 compared to Carrollton's average of -3.0, consistent with Carrollton's season strength of schedule. This tells us that Le-Win on average has played lesser competition in the playoffs than they did in the regular season, and the only numbers holding that strength up are rematch games with Fulton and Forreston, who are rated 3rd and 4th, respectively, behind Le-Win and Carrollton.

This puts Le-Win as a 3 score favorite heading into the Class 1A state championship game. While numbers don't tell the whole story, they give us the best information to predict performance and matchups. Any coach will tell you that you still need chance, opportunity, and luck to win a state title, and they are not wrong.

The biggest keys for Le-Win are to stop the rushing attack and control the line. For Carrollton, their biggest key will be to move the ball on the ground and match the line play. This has been a tough one to predict, and I have had different thoughts and predictions throughout the week, but here is my final answer:

Le-Win 42 Carrollton 20


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