Faced with trying to slow down Casey-Westfield's prolific triple-option offense, the Althoff Crusaders are fortunate to have a little experience on their side.
"It looks just like Triad to be honest with you, and they run it as well as Triad runs it," said Althoff coach Ken Turner, whose 8-3 squad plays host to the 11-0 Warriors in a 7 p.m. Class 2A football quarterfinal game Saturday at Lindenwood Stadium. "It's an offense that we've seen before. We've got to win that battle in the trenches; They run their schemes really well and the key to that offense is the quarterback and the fullback."
That same option offense rolled up 50 points, 356 yards rushing and 479 yards overall last week in a 50-49 overtime victory over Carlinville.
Pulling the trigger is elusive junior quarterback Nicco Stepina with running back Ajaye Meeks and fullback Dalton Livvix providing the speed and power behind an experienced offensive line.
First-year Casey coach Jim Sullivan was an assistant under Hall of Fame coach Keith Sinclair, who ran the power-I formation with great success during a 210-50 run with the Warriors that included a state title.
But when Sullivan switched to the option, he found the players were readily receptive.
"The kids were excited to get started and we sold them on the idea that we're going to have a lot of people touch the ball and they'd get to play in space," said Sullivan, a Casey assistant from 2004 to 2009.
Casey is making its 10th straight appearance in the quarterfinals and has lost only six games in the last six seasons. The Warriors reached the 2A state title game last November before losing 23-14 to Morrison.
Looking for positives in this matchup, Althoff can point to Casey allowing a whopping 49 points, more than 500 yards of offense and six rushing touchdowns last week to Carlinville.
"I've been a defensive coach my whole career and I've not won many games 50-49," Sullivan said. "We talked about being resilient prior to that game and we knew they were going to score because Carlinville had two dynamic running backs and their line was good."
A lot of Casey's success begins with a large and strong offensive line, where four starters return led by a trio of three-year starters.
That line includes senior twin brothers Matt McCown (6-3, 235) and Shawn McCown (6-1, 250), Austin Justice (6-0, 270) and Jerimiyah Budd (6-0, 225).
"They're grinders and they're tough, hard-nosed kids -- and they love to play football," Sullivan said.
While some have criticized Althoff's presence in the 2A playoffs because of the lack of an enrollment multiplier per Illinois High School Association bylaws, Sullivan and the Warriors welcome the challenge.
"It's going to be like the movie Hoosiers on Saturday night," Sullivan said. "We're rural kids that are going to come out and are gonna fight. We're excited to play ball."
Casey's defense will be tested by Althoff's above-average speed at running back and wide receiver and an experienced quarterback in Eric Mertens than has thrown for 2,092 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Casey's offense will be matched against a battle-tested Althoff defense led by 340-pound Illinois recruit Merrick Jackson at defensive tackle, Division I linebacker prospect Erik Furmanek and linebacker Zach Donaldson.
"Althoff's got a great team and got a lot of talent," Sullivan said. "I'm a big Illini fan so maybe I'll get Merrick's autograph while I'm down there."
Saturday's game: Casey-Westfield (11-0) vs. Althoff (8-3) at Lindenwood Stadium in Belleville, 7 p.m.
Casey players to watch: RB Ajaye Meeks (90 carries, 962 yards, 15 TDs); QB Nicco Stepina (54-for-97, 854 yards, 12 TDs, 4 int.; 96 carries, 714 yards rushing, 13 TDs); RB Dalton Livvix (105 carries, 698 yards, 10 TDs); RB Joshua Blome (42 carries, 407 yards, 5 TDs; 12 catches, 151 yards, 1 TD); WR Zack Murphy (15 catches, 287 yards, 5 TDs); WR Anthony Wilson (11 catches, 216 yards, 1 TD); LB-OL Matt McCown 74 tackles, 5 sacks).
Althoff players to watch: WR Garland Henley (29 catches, 630 yards, 9 TDs; 76 carries, 325 yards rushing, 4 TDs); QB Eric Mertens 138-for-244, 2,092 yards, 19 TDs, 16 int.); RB Dennis Jackson (184 carries, 785 yards, 11 TDs; 13 catches, 120 yards, 1 TD); WR Nick Hawthorne (31 catches, 441 yards, 6 TDs; 29 carries, 272 yards rushing, 3 TDs); LB-OL Erik Furmanek (138 tackles, 3 int.); DL Merrick Jackson (87 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 int.); LB Zach Donaldson (87 tackles, 4 int.)
Notes: Althoff has won five in a row after a 3-3 start...Casey has outscored opponents 166-31 in the first quarter this season and 293-51 in the first half.
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at email@example.com or 239-2454.