CARROLLTON - At the start of the season there’s a good chance that the two teams making it to this point in the playoffs would’ve sounded somewhat crazy, but that’s the beauty of high school football.

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Nothing is set in stone before a contest with teenagers involved. At 2 p.m. Saturday the Carrollton Hawks (10-1) will face off against the LeRoy Panthers (8-3) in the IHSA Class 1A quarterfinals in LeRoy.

For the Hawks, this marks the second season in a row in which they’ve made it to the quarterfinals and to go further back, it’s the third year out of four as well.

From LeRoy’s point of view this will be a revenge game between the Hawks. Last year, in the second round of the playoffs, Carrollton demolished the Panthers 69-16 and scored on all of their possessions in the process.

Carrollton were massive favorites prior to that game anyway but there’s no doubt that surrendering 69 points will make plenty of LeRoy players embarrassed and then angry. That being said, last season, the majority of the Panthers starters were juniors and sophomores. Now they’re seniors and juniors, and they remember last year’s game against Carrollton.

LeRoy will be hosting and arguably has greater momentum than Carrollton. The Panthers shutout the Greenfield-Northwestern Tigers, 30-0 in round one. The only other team to shutout the Tigers was Carrollton in week three, 26-0. Then LeRoy shocked the state when they upset the number one seeded Tuscola Warriors, 20-13.

Carrollton’s playoff journey started off with a convincing 40-20 victory over the Red Hill Saluki’s in which the Hawks persevered in the rain and mud and shut down one of the best rushers in state, Dalton Murray, mostly thanks to the mud. Next was the Pawnee Indians, who gave Carrollton one of their toughest games of the season and at one point was staring death in the face. However Jerrett Smith and Cole Brannan hooked up on an 80-yard fake punt pass, which broke the Hawks out of jail and hung on to win 28-22.

The Hawk’s spread offense was in much better shape than it was in the first round against Red Hill, but it was mostly effective in the first half of the game against Pawnee. Wade Prough has passed for over 130 yards in each of the playoff games and has felt more comfortable in the pocket as each game has gone on.

The unit that has greatly stepped up is the Hawks defense. So far they’ve managed to force nine turnovers in two games. They shutout Red Hill in the first half and then shutout Pawnee in the second half of that game, but there is room for improvement. Against the Indians they struggled to keep them off the field for long spells throughout the game, which could very well happen against LeRoy.

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The driving force that has carried the Panthers for the season, especially in the postseason has been their defense. Having allowed just two touchdowns in two games is impressive enough, but there’s more. Shutting out Greenfield was no easy task at all, keeping Taegen Grigsby, the leading rusher in the WIVC, in check.

Then probably the most impressive feat was shutting down Nick Bates of Tuscola, who’s arguably the best quarterback in the state for 1A and maybe even 2A since the Warriors were ranked number one in 2A for most of the season. LeRoy successfully keyed in on him by blitzing several times while the secondary stayed with the Tuscola wide receivers.

What carries LeRoy is their line on both sides of the ball. The Panthers are very physical on both ends and great at creating space on offense and then plugging up holes on the defensive side.

The Panthers best athlete is Bryce Dooley, who was their quarterback last season, but now operates as wingback and on an occasion will call the shots under center. He has breakaway speed and is tough to tackle one-on-one in the open field. Last week he scored on a 63-yard touchdown reception and ran for a 39-yard score.

Brett Egan was LeRoy’s starting quarterback for the whole season, but he sustained a season-ending injury against Greenfield. Now, Dooley and backup, Trae Moberly split time under center.

On offense LeRoy will play for ball control and not try to be too fancy at all, just ground and pound. They even controlled the ball for a combined total of 11 minutes last week in the fourth quarter. Occasionally the Panthers will throw and that will probably be to Dooley, since he is their number one target to go to.

With all that being said, if Carrollton can get out to an early lead or go up by two scores, easier said than done, they will be in good hands from there on out.

Prough threw three touchdowns last week and has 25 for the season. Cole Brannan, Jerrett Smith, Tyler Frye, Alex Bowker, and Brody Howard can all cause problems in the LeRoy secondary. Prough will most likely face plenty of pressure from the Panther linebackers, but that will allow the receivers to have more space to get open. In that case Prough may be throwing a lot of short, quick passes.

The Hawks have struggled mightily on the ground in the playoffs. Last week they rushed for a combined 14 yards and 146 against Red Hill. In total that’s 160 yards in two games. Most of those yards have come from Brannan, who’s rushed for 127 of those 160 yards.

Overall Carrollton will not be favored to win because they will be on the road against the team that toppled, supposedly the best team in the Illinois, however this is perhaps the first time all season or maybe in a couple of seasons that the Hawks have gone into a game with the underdog label. They may have some fun with that.

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