Paul Murphy is staring at a situation no football coach in Illinois would envy.
His team desperately needs three wins.
So does his next opponent.
Murphy, Waubonsie Valley's retiring head coach, and the Warriors host fellow 2-4 Naperville Central Friday.
"To keep yourself in a position to play for something Week 9, it's a challenge and we have to answer the bell," Murphy said. "We have not answered the bell for four weeks."
Such is the reality of life in the DuPage Valley Conference this fall. It's a season marked by two factors. The competition is a bear, week in and week out – nothing new there. But for more than one of the teams, an unforgiving non-conference schedule has painted them in a corner.
Heading into Week 7, only 5-1 Neuqua Valley and 4-2 DeKalb are well-positioned to make the playoffs. Three others – 2-4 Waubonsie, Naperville Central and Naperville North – need to win out to secure the five wins traditionally necessary for a playoff bid.
Should all three miss out, it would mark only the second time since at least 1996 – 2014 the other – that the league was relegated to two playoff bids. And it could potentially be the first occasion during that time period that the league only had two winning teams.
"I've told other people, the difference between this year and years past, really since we joined the DVC [in 2015] is the challenge of getting non-conference games and who we have to play. There's just never a week off," Neuqua Valley coach Bill Ellinghaus said. "There used to be times, that you feel if we can just get to this game we feel good about it. There's not those weeks that you feel you can take a breath. You have to be prepared every week."
DeKalb, newcomer to the DVC, knows that as well as anyone. The Barbs blew a nine-point lead in a 34-30 loss to Neuqua Week 4, but then came back to beat Metea Valley 31-30 and Waubonsie 34-7.
"They're a lot like us," Murphy said of DeKalb. "They have a lot of skilled players, and they play hard. They've been a good addition to the league."
Ellinghaus' Wildcats should take a bow just for getting to 5-1, and how they did it.
Neuqua scored the last 13 points of the game to beat DeKalb 34-30 in Week 4, then ran 79 offensive plays to Naperville Central's 28 to beat the Redhawks 19-14 last Friday. That, of course, comes after Neuqua opened eyes with a Week 3 50-48 loss to East St. Louis in a game that came down to a two-point conversion and in which quarterback Mark Gronowski accounted for seven TDs.
"We feel good about where we're at," Ellinghaus said, "but as I told the boys, it's not about where you're at, it's about where we are going. We don't want that Central game to be the highlight of our season."
Murphy's Warriors, on the contrary, have lost four straight since a 2-0 start – and can trace the slide back to a long road trip.
Waubonsie in Week 3 lost to Trinity High School of Louisville, a 23-time state champ of Kentucky, 60-6.
"I don't know if we lost our confidence our mojo, but ever since we lost in Kentucky we haven't played the way we're capable of," said Murphy, whose program has missed the playoffs just once since 2006.
Naperville Central can relate. The Redhawks were highly touted in the preseason with Minnesota recruit Sam Jackson at quarterback and Illinois recruit and Marist transfer Jaedon Thompson leading a deep receiving corps.
Then the Redhawks started 0-3 with non-conference losses to Hinsdale Central, Lincoln-Way East and Pickerington (Ohio). Week 9, Central hosts East St. Louis, potentially its third unbeaten non-conference opponent. Across town, Naperville North has played Benet, Batavia and Massillon (Ohio).
Waubonsie, which is working to line up 2020 nonconference games with Oswego East and Batavia, had to scramble to fill this year's slate.
"We couldn't find anybody to play Week 3, Naperville Central had played Trinity the year before up here and they weren't willing to come back," Murphy said. "It was either play them or have a bye week, and we're not going to go with a bye – you have to play somebody – and we went down there and walked into a buzzsaw," Murphy said.
"All of us had unbelievable non-conference games to start with. We had to talk to Kentucky, Metea went to southern Illinois, Neuqua got East St. Louis to come here and DeKalb got Edwardsville to come here. The non-conference schedule is crazy."
Waubonsie isn't necessarily a stranger to win-or-go-home situations in October. In 2016, the Warriors won a Week 9 game with Wheaton North to squeak in at 5-4.
"That is something we're hoping to do, and something we're selling the kids on. If we can get out of this, we can get on a roll," Murphy said, "but we have to play with urgency and we have to protect the ball more. We threw four picks last week, had a pick-six three weeks in a row. You can't win throwing pick-sixes."