There's been a lot of hype surrounding the 2019 Sycamore Spartans — the unanimous pick to claim the Interstate Eight Conference title by the league head coaches and a preseason AP Class 5A state rankee — and with good reason, according to Ottawa coach Chad Gross.
"It's all deserved," Gross said. "When you watch them on film, they are a complete team, I would say: offensively, defensively and special teams. They have the speed and size to do a lot of different things offensively. Defensively you can tell they kind of play with that edge that they expect to not just stop the opposing offense but kind of punish them.
"You can tell they're a very confident team, and rightfully so."
Gross' Pirates (1-2, 0-1) will find out in-person Friday night when they make the trip to Sycamore to take on the No. 8-rated Spartans (2-1, 1-0) in an I-8 game at Engh Field.
Sycamore began its campaign by facing a trio of then-ranked opponents: beating 6A Washington (24-0), losing to archrival and 7A DeKalb (13-0) — a contest it was without the services of standout Manny Dominguez (injury) — and defeating 6A Kaneland (35-14) in Maple Park to open conference play with a statement "W."
"We knew Sycamore was going to be really good, and they haven't disappointed thus far," Gross said. "They knew they were going to have a special group, and they wanted to challenge themselves in nonconference, and they did that ... and then opened conference with a nice win over Kaneland; I think they put everyone else on notice that, yeah, this team's for real and they're going to be a handful here moving forward throughout our conference.
"I'm very honest with (our kids), so they understand what we're getting into. I just told them if they don't show up ready to play from the start it could get ugly. (Sycamore is) that good of an opponent that they can put it on teams in a hurry."
Sycamore is averaging 19.7 points and 319.7 yards per game (176.3 rushing, 143.3 passing), led by dual-threat senior QB Grant McConkey (30-of-44 passing, 430 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs; 39 carries, 164 yards, TD) and with the playmaking Dominguez (135 yards from scrimmage — 7.1 per touch — 2 TDs) coming out of the backfield.
The Pirate "D" has yielded only three touchdowns and just 98 yards on the ground. They're giving up 99 ypg through the air.
"(Sycamore runs) a very diverse offense. They have weapons everywhere. From what I could tell, they really don't have a weakness," Gross said. "They're able to (run it and throw it) at a high level, and it's going to be a challenge trying to slow them down.
"Defensively, we're just going to have to communicate. We're going to have to identify what formation they're in early, and then adjust from there. We need to try to not get out of our gaps."
"We need to continue to have a good mix in the run game and the pass game," veteran coach Joe Ryan said of his Spartans, who ran for 241 yards and threw for 231 vs. Kaneland, "and with having Manny back that allows us to have a little bit of that."
Ottawa is averaging 22.7 points and 185 yards (125.3 rushing, 59.7 passing). However, they've committed nine turnovers.
The Spartans are allowing 9 points and 214.3 yards (83.3 rushing, 131 passing). Spearheading that defense are Dominguez — who has a scholarship offer from Division II Augustana (S.D.) — at safety and middle linebacker Preston Ruud (offer from D-II Quincy), whose playing status was uncertain as of last Sunday night (injury). Another notable inside 'backer is Jason O'Donnell.
"There usually are one or two weaknesses that I can put on the scouting report; this week there wasn't," Gross said after assessing Sycamore's defense. "They're fast off the ball, aggressive; you know, speed and strength at every position. So it'll be a challenge for us to try to block things up. They have playmakers at all three levels of the defense.
"We just have to do a better job of executing our stuff and communicating up front. We have to do a much better job of protecting the ball and our quarterback.
"So it's going to be up to our offense to try to have some sustained drives to keep them off the field a little bit, and then defensively try to slow them down a little bit."
"They want to run it at times; then I know that they have the good quarterback that certainly can throw," Ryan said of Ottawa and Brett Galletti (17-40, 179 yards, TD, 3 INTs), "You want to stop the run, force them to throw the ball, but then you don't want them to be successful when they do it."
Ottawa Pirates (1-2, 0-1) at Sycamore Spartans (2-1, 1-0)
Kickoff: 7 p.m. Friday at Engh Field.
Radio: JACK-FM 95.3.
Last meeting: Sycamore 35, Ottawa 0 (2015).
FND pick: Sycamore.