They're back! Previews and predictions for this weekend's state title football games
As the IHSA title football games return to Illinois State University for the first time since 1998, we're bringing back a blast from the past - previews and predictions for the Class 1A to 8A finals.
The blue bloods will be in full force Friday and Saturday in Normal. Mt. Carmel, East St. Louis, Joliet Catholic, Lena-Winslow and Rochester have combined for 52 titles. Loyola, Lincoln-Way East, Nazareth and Cary-Grove each have won at least three.
Five teams are aiming for repeat titles. Camp Point Central and Athens are the lone teams searching for their first.
Here's a look at each game.
Class 1A: Lena-Winslow (13-0) vs. Camp Point Central (13-0)
This is a rematch of last year's 1A final, won by Lena-Winslow. The Panthers have dominated 1A, claiming four of the last five titles.
This year's been no different, even while passing only nine times in 13 games.
Gage Dunker has rushed for 2,492 yards and 41 touchdowns while Cobryn Lynch has added 1,078 yards.
Drew Paben is a big-play machine in Camp Point Central's ground game with 1,055 yards, but fullback Elijah Genenbacher is the real force with 971 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. He also leads the defense at middle linebacker.
Don't fall asleep on quarterback Nick Moore, who's thrown for 631 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Prediction: Despite a tight win over Hope Academy in the semis, I like Lena-Winslow.
Class 2A: Wilmington (12-1) vs. Athens (11-2)
A season-opening loss to Seneca spurred Wilmington on a 12-game winning streak, including an overtime win over the Fighting Irish in the quarterfinal rematch.
Kyle Farrell has piled up 2,056 rushing yards out of the double wing. He's also a leading defender at linebacker.
If the game comes down to special teams, Wilmington is confident with Reid Juster. He hit a 54-yard field goal in the playoff game against Seneca and sent it to overtime with a late field goal.
Camren Bigard and Cory Craig Jr. have combined for 3,500 rushing yards and 46 touchdowns for Athens. For tough yards, the Warriors lean on Craig.
Prediction: I like the difference-maker in Juster, so I'm leaning toward Wilmington.
Class 3A: Byron (13-0) vs. Mt. Carmel (12-1)
Can anyone slow Byron? Montini came the closest in last week's 26-20 loss, but the Tigers are averaging 60 points.
Caden Considine and Brayden Knoll each have rushed for more than 1,000 yards. Considine is also the leading tackler on defense.
Blayne Sisson is the all-everything quarterback for downstate Mt. Carmel. The converted receiver and defensive back has rushed for 2,081 yards and 36 touchdowns. Sisson decommitted from Southern Illinois to accept a preferred walk-on offer at Illinois.
Asher Kight and Elliott Acree, leaders on defense, have combined for nearly 1,300 rushing yards.
Prediction: Sisson has the ability to dominate, but Byron looks unstoppable.
Class 4A: St. Laurence (10-3) vs. Rochester (13-0)
St. Laurence, which lost two straight to end the regular season, strung together four straight wins against higher seeds to reach its first title game since 1979.
Aaron Ball is the team's best player. He's rushed for 1,484 yards and 20 touchdowns. Quarterback Evan Les has 1,037 passing yards and rushed for 486.
Rochester returns to the final in search of its ninth title in nine appearances.
It hasn't been challenged in the playoffs, and its closest game was a 31-21 win over Sacred Heart-Griffin. The offensive balance is amazing with Bryan Zulauf throwing for 2,234 yards and Nolan Mrozowski rushing for 1,141 yards and 22 scores.
Prediction: Look for Rochester to make it 9-for-9.
Class 5A: Nazareth (8-5) vs. Joliet Catholic (10-3)
After starting 0-4 and losing the regular-season finale, Nazareth struggled just to reach the playoffs.
But the Roadrunners are ready to defend their 5A title. With only five senior starters, they've grown up fast.
Junior Logan Malachuk has 3,062 passing yards and 29 touchdowns against 3 interceptions. James Penley, Trenton Walker and Jake Cestone each have at least 45 catches and 700 receiving yards.
Joliet Catholic also lost its regular-season finale, but now the Hilltoppers are vying for a 16th state title.
They boast balance with H.J. Grigsby, who has 1,490 rushing yards, and quarterback Andy Munoz, whose main weapon is Adrian Washington. He's got 35 catches for 700 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Six-foot-two, 280-pound Dillan Johnson, the Hilltoppers' second-leading tackler as an interior lineman, is committed to Wisconsin.
Prediction: Nazareth has been living on the edge the last couple weeks, so I'm picking Joliet Catholic.
Class 6A: Cary-Grove (11-2) vs. East St. Louis (11-2)
Cary-Grove, which last year missed the playoffs for the first time since 2003, is back with a vengeance. The only thing separating the Trojans from being unbeaten is a pair of 1-point losses.
The punishing triple-option ground game is led by Logan Abrams, a defensive lineman last season, and Andrew Prio. They've combined for 2,700 rushing yards. Quarterback Peyton Seaburg's added 683 rushing yards.
East St. Louis, the defending 6A champ, hit its stride after a 1-2 start. Once again the Flyers have Power Five talent all over the field, with defensive back Leontre Bradford and receiver Jesse Watson both committed to Purdue.
Prediction: It's tough to go against the Flyers, but I've got a feeling about Cary-Grove.
Class 7A: Downers Grove North (11-2) vs. Mt. Carmel (12-1)
Downers North broke through for its first final appearance since winning the 8A title in 2004.
Running back Noah Battle, a two-way standout, has overcome injuries to rush for 1,098 yards and 17 touchdowns. Six-foot-two sophomore quarterback Owen Lansu, who has thrown for 1,929 yards, is courting Power Five interest.
The Thulin brothers, Owen and Oliver, have combined for 79 catches and more than 1,100 receiving yards. Defensive lineman Joe Edwards is the brother of former Trojans quarterback and current Buffalo Bills offensive lineman David Edwards.
The Trojans have a ton of confidence after last week's 42-0 win over previously unbeaten Normal, and they'll need it against defending 7A champion Mt. Carmel, which knocked out Downers North in the second round last year.
Caravan coach Jordan Lynch called Darrion Dupree, a Wisconsin recruit, one of the better players to ever compete at the Chicago school. He's rushed for 1,056 yards and 16 touchdowns. Jack Elliott's thrown for 2,861 yards including 704 to Dupree.
Prediction: Sorry, Downers North fans. I've got to go with Mt. Carmel, whose only loss came by 2 points to Loyola.
Class 8A: Loyola (13-0) vs. Lincoln-Way East (13-0)
The strength of Loyola's defense, which has allowed single-digit points in 10 games, is up front with Catholic League lineman of the year Joe Kelly and co-defensive player of the year Jimmy McGovern.
The defending 8A champion Ramblers are balanced in the backfield with Drew MacPherson, Finn Miller and quarterback Ryan Fitzgerald combining for nearly 2,000 rushing yards. Fitzgerald, the son of former Northwestern coach and current Loyola volunteer coach Pat Fitzgerald, has thrown for 1,853 yards.
Lincoln-Way East has been equally stingy defensively. Led by junior end Caden O'Rourke, who has multiple Power Five offers, the Griffins have allowed 6 points in the playoffs.
While Nuri Muhammad and Zion Gist have combined for 2,100 rushing yards, quarterback Braden Tischer has thrown for 1,672 yards and 17 touchdowns against 2 interceptions.
Prediction: This might be the best game of the weekend, but look for a Loyola repeat.