Austin Culton wasn’t in Maple Park to watch Sycamore defeat Kaneland, 40-13, in the first round of the 2009 Class 5A playoffs.
But the Spartans’ senior running back has a vivid memory of what happened.
“I remember that night because it was a big win for us. I think it was on Halloween,” said Culton, who was a freshman at the time. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t at that game, but i remember hearing about it. Marckie (Hayes) had a huge game – all the running backs had a big game.”
Halloween 2009 was the last time Sycamore (5-2) defeated Kaneland. Behind a combined 385 rushing yards from Joe Dougherty and Hayes, who is on the Northern Illinois football team, the Spartans ran away with a dominating win and their first playoff victory since 1985.
Since that game, the rivalry has turned. Kaneland has won consecutive Northern Illinois Big 12 East championships and has made the state semifinals in back-to-back seasons. Both times they defeated Sycamore in the regular season.
“They’re a really good team,” Sycamore coach Joe Ryan said. “We’re going to be huge underdogs.”
How good has Kaneland been? For the third time in as many seasons, Kaneland (7-0) has run the table so far in the regular season. The Knights have outscored their opponents, 315-88, and have won their seven games by an average of more than 32 points a game. Over the past five weeks, the average margin of victory balloons to 42 points.
Only two teams – Brooks and Rochelle – have managed to hold Kaneland’s high-powered offense to less than 40 points.
“This one will be the most diverse offense that we face,” Ryan said. “They can run the ball, throw the ball, they can go power sets, they can go five-wide. That presents a lot of issues for your defense.”
Kaneland’s up-tempo offense is a stark contrast from Sycamore’s opponents over the past three weeks, when the Spartans faced a steady diet of power-run teams that grind out three to five yards a play on the ground. Ottawa, Morris and Rochelle combined to attempt only 21 passes against Sycamore. Kaneland quarterback Drew David could exceed that total in the first half tonight..
“It’s really difficult because it’s something different than what we’ve been practicing the last couple weeks,” Ryan said. “It’s not like they haven’t worked on [different coverages] for the last four weeks, we have, just not as extensively.”
The Spartans defense, a unit that was relatively young and inexperienced at the start of the season, has kept Sycamore in games recently, giving up only 37 points over the past three weeks.
But the Sycamore offense will be counted on to play a little defense of its own. Ryan said one of the keys will be to limit turnovers, something that hurt the Spartans in last year’s loss. Sycamore held a 21-14 lead in the third quarter before two costly second-half fumbles allowed Kaneland to score the final 21 points of the game.
“We can’t give them short fields. They’re too good offensively to give them short fields,” Ryan said. “Hopefully we can keep the ball in our possession and limit their possessions.”
Culton likely will be featured heavily in Sycamore’s attempt to control time of possession tonight. And like the game three years ago, he’ll hope to replicate the success of Dougherty and Hayes in getting his first career win against Kaneland.
“It’d be the biggest win of the year,” Culton said. “Big confidence-booster going into the playoffs. It’s just big momentum.”