Cary-Grove’s defense battled Prairie Ridge’s yard-churning fullback Jackson Willis in Week 8 and held him to a season-low 50 yards rushing in a 21-14 win.
The Trojans faced one of the state’s best quarterbacks, Naperville Central quarterback Payton Thorne, in Week 9, and although he threw for 398 yards, they came up with enough stops in the second and third quarters for a 55-41 victory.
Now, C-G faces a different type of beast in Chicago Phillips senior Jahleel Billingsley.
When No. 4-seeded Chicago Phillips (9-2) visits No. 1 C-G (11-0) in their Class 6A playoffs quarterfinal at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, the focus will be on slowing down Billingsley, the Wildcats’ 6-foot-5, 220-pound tight end-turned-quarterback who is headed for Alabama next year.
Phillips has used Billingsley more in its Wildcat formations in the postseason to spark the offense. C-G coach Brad Seaburg watched the video of Billingsley against Prairie Ridge in the Wildcats’ 24-19 victory last week.
“He’s stiff-arming guys who were tackling our guys in the open field,” Seaburg said. “So he makes good players look really normal. He’s a special player. They’re going to continue to do that until somebody stops them, because so far nobody’s stopped them.”
Linebacker Jake Johnson knows the Trojans need to be at their best to slow down Billingsley and running back Anthony Anderson, the Wildcats’ other top rushing threat.
“We want to stop the run and make them do things they don’t normally do,” Johnson said. “We have to tackle and get to the ball. You have to tackle low and use your entire body; you can’t just reach with your hands because he’ll stiff-arm you.”
Phillips won the Class 5A state championship last season and asked the IHSA to play in Class 6A this year. C-G, ranked among the top Class 6A teams all season, figured it would see the Wildcats at some point.
Phillips coach Troy McAllister, meanwhile, watched his offense struggle in each of the past two weeks and moved Billingsley into the backfield to jumpstart his offense.
“[Billingsley] is a dynamic athlete; he’s tough to bring down,” McAllister said. “We have the mindset that we want our best players to touch the ball as much as possible. At quarterback, he can touch the ball every play. We feel confident in letting him get the ball and see where the play takes him.”
Trojans safety Max Buss was impressed with what he saw of Billingsley, who carried 13 times for 81 yards last week against PR. His presence also helped spring Anderson loose for 137 yards.
“We have to gang tackle,” Buss said. “Eleven helmets to the ball. [Billingsley] looks like a tank. We have a great mindset to be able to do the job.”
Seaburg felt his defense was “raw” at the start of the season, with only Buss and defensive back Danny Daigle returning at their regular positions. Linebacker Ben McDonald was playing quarterback, and defensive back Blake Skol was at fullback. There were a lot of new players on defense.
“We felt like we had guys who could play defense, but they were just green,” Seaburg said. “We’re doing outstanding. Our kids really study film well. We’re seeing leaders emerge on defense. Every week we get better and better and better.”
The Trojans have allowed 13 points and 465 yards total in two playoff games.
“We come off the ball fast,” Johnson said. “Our D-line and linebackers and safeties all know what we’re doing. We’re pretty experienced by now. We have a lot of young players coming up and playing very well.”
Buss hopes C-G can get off to a better start against Phillips than it has in some other games.
“We’re more of a second-half team, but we’ve been working on that,” Buss said. “You learn what to do in the first half, then come out and stop them in the second half. We do a good job of that.”
On the other side, Phillips saw its first option offense of the season with Prairie Ridge, which helped the Wildcats prepare for C-G’s option this week.
“It’s kind of a Catch-22 because we got to see Prairie Ridge and see what they do and defend it, which is a positive,” McAllister said. “But the negative is Cary-Grove has a copy of our film so they’ve seen how we defend the triple, so that gives them a slight advantage.”
The Trojans’ offense has been almost unstoppable at times between the option attack and McDonald’s passing to Daigle and wide receiver Quinn Priester.