Saturday, December 2, 2023

IL football state championship predictions, 1A–4A


We have a few predictions for the Illinois high school state title football games, starting with 1A, 2A, 3A, and 4A. The games will be played at three-hour intervals, beginning at 10 AM Friday, November 27, at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb.

In Class 1A, we predict Arcola will defeat Stark County

Both Stark County from Toulon and Arcola are undefeated this season and have head coaches who coach winning teams. Jade Noard at Stark County has turned in overwhelmingly winning records, including second place in state in 2008, since 2007, his third year at Stark County. Zach Zehr is in his third year at Arcola, and he turned the team around last year from a losing record the previous year to lose by only a touchdown in the 1A quarterfinal.

Not only is the team from Arcola carrying turaround momentum into the championship game, but control of the line of scrimmage, measured by rushing plays, differs significantly between the two teams.

While Stark County has rushed for 3,452 yards in 560 attempts (6.16 yards per carry average), Arcola has gained 4,135 yards rushing so far this season in 332 attempts (12.45 yards per carry average). On the defensive side of the line, the difference was less pronounced but favored Arcola as well: Stark County gave up 1,905 yards in 490 rushes (3.89 yards average), while Arcola gave up a net 576 yards in 261 rushing attempts (2.21 yards average).

In summary, Arcola gained more than twice as many yards per carry and gave up slightly fewer yards per carry than Stark County.

You might wonder whether Arcola simply played teams that were weaker at the line of scrimmage than Stark County, inflating their rushing stats as an artifact of that difference. The only note I have about that is that Stark County’s opponents were a little tougher this season, turning in a combined 80 victories, compared to 63 combined victories for Arcola’s 13 opponents so far this season.

Stark County is also coming more directly off a close game. They battled Marquette in their semifinal game and won by only a field goal. Arcola, on the other hand, easily defeated LeRoy in their semifinal game but had a tough game in the quarterfinal round this season, defeating Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley by a single point.

At the end of the day, though, we just don’t think the minor difference in schedule strength and the immediacy of a close game negates the differences shown throughout the season in controlling the line of scrimmage, especially when coupled with Stark County’s unfortunate five-day rest due to playing the semifinal last Sunday because of a snowstorm the day before. We therefore call the game for Arcola.

In Class 2A, we predict Tri-Valley will defeat Auburn

Tri-Valley is undefeated this season, and Auburn lost three games in the regular season but has made a strong showing in the playoff rounds. Both teams have strong veteran coaches, though—Dave Bates has been at Auburn about 30 years, winning about 71 percent of his games, though this is his very first title game, and Josh Roop has been at Tri-Valley for nine years, winning about 74 percent of his. Not much distinguishes either team there.

Again, however, the control of the line of scrimmage favors one team: Tri-Valley.

Team Rushes For Average Gain Rushes Against Yards Given Up
Tri-Valley 568 9.33 427 3.25
Auburn 528 5.02 445 4.07

Simply put, Tri-Valley gained almost twice as many yards per carry as Auburn and gave up slightly fewer yards on each rush by their opponents than Auburn did. In general, when two evenly matched teams play each other, barring a turnover imbalance or excessive penalties in favor of one team, both of which are impossible to predict, the team that controls the line of scrimmage will win the game. Despite Auburn’s probable excitement and the adrenaline rush that comes with being at last in a state final, it’s Tri-Valley in this one.

In Class 3A, we predict Bishop McNamara will defeat Unity

With a combined 63 years of serving as head coaches, Rich Zinanni at Bishop McNamara in Kankakee and Scott Hamilton at Unity in Tolono have a long history of state playoffs. McNamara had a run of three consecutive titles in the 1980s, and Hamilton has taken his team to the title game four times in his 22-year career at Unity.

And unlike the earlier classes, teams are almost evenly matched in terms of domination at the line of scrimmage: McNamara gained an average of 7.65 yards per carry while giving up an average of 4.1 yards; Unity gained an average of 6.2 yards per carry in its 13 games while giving up an average of 4.59 yards. The numbers are slightly in McNamara’s favor, but not enough for us to make a call.

So far this season, McNamara’s 13 opponents have 89 combined victories, compared to 99 for Unity, meaning Unity faced a slightly tougher schedule, but the team lost two more games, and if we subtract the victories of teams that also won their games against McNamara, we have 79 combined victories, and against Unity, we have 69. Again, though, this difference is insignificant when it comes to predicting a winner.

Next we look at momentum. Semifinal games for both teams were won by wide margins, and each followed a quarterfinal game that was tighter for Unity than for McNamara. Can this momentum coming off a tight game two weeks ago propel Unity to overcome the very slight and probably insignificant disadvantage shown for dominance at the line of scrimmage?

We’re not sure, but we think not. Most teams bring their best stuff to the championship game and the adrenaline flows for both teams, for the most part, in the same proportions. We’re therefore going with our initial call: McNamara in a tough battle.

In Class 4A, we predict Phillips will defeat Althoff Catholic

Phillips and Althoff Catholic are both undefeated, this being the second of three title games this year between two undefeated teams. Phillips played in the title game last year, losing to Rochester, which Althoff took out in the quarterfinals this year. Althoff was in a title game as recently as 2012, losing to Mercer County, but has three state titles in football in its trophy case (1980, 1989, and 1990), though all three were before head coach Ken Turner’s time.

We have no defensive rushing stats for either team, and the offensive rushing stats are close to each other: 9.70 yards per carry for Phillips and 7.71 for Althoff gives a slight advantage to Phillips, but it’s only half the story. The other half is missing from the IHSA.

Phillips can give up the points, while Althoff’s season was marked by an ability to keep other teams off the scoreboard: only four of their 13 victories saw their opponent scoring more than 7 points, and no team scored more than 18 against them. Phillips, on the other hand, had only three games in which their losing opponents scored fewer than 20 points.

The question comes down to this: Will the somewhat permeable defense of Phillips put up a wall at the goal line, especially against the explosive passing attack Althoff is known for? The weather, forecast to be cold and rainy at game time, could help answer this question, favoring strong control of the line compared to explosive passing. Or, will the Phillips offense dominate the line of scrimmage sufficiently to overcome a potentially high point total by Althoff?

We think the latter is more likely to become the way Phillips prevails in this championship game, relying on our understanding that the team that dominates the line of scrimmage, when two teams are evenly matched, as we suspect they are here, will win the game, barring a turnover or penalty imbalance.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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