Sterling's Aidan Munoz-Ripley (76) and Noel Aponte (9) tackle Quincy's Drae Humphrey during the first half of their Week 5 game in Sterling.
Sterling's Aidan Munoz-Ripley (76) and Noel Aponte (9) tackle Quincy's Drae Humphrey during the first half of their Week 5 game in Sterling. — Michael Krabbenhoeft/mkrabbenhoeft@saukvalley.com

Through 2017 and 2018, Moline was the class of the Western Big 6 in football, winning all 10 of its conference games over that span on the way to back-to-back conference titles.

The new guys in the league are looking to shake things up.

League newcomer Sterling is currently sitting in first place, 4-0 in conference play, while Moline is part of a three-team pack tied for second at 3-1, along with Quincy and Alleman.

“Moline’s been in here and dominating the conference, and it would be nice for us to come in here and dominate the conference from now on,” Sterling junior Michael Hanrahan said.

Sterling has already spent a couple of weeks introducing itself to the conference elite. The then-six-team league sent four teams to the playoffs in 2018; Sterling has already faced and beaten three of them. Sterling beat Alleman 34-6 in Week 3 to open conference play. In Week 5, the Warriors met up with Quincy, taking a 33-0 lead into the fourth before winning 33-20. Last Friday, it was Rock Island, and the Warriors won 49-26.

But in recent years, all of those teams have been looking up at Moline in the standings. The Maroons were 9-2 overall last year, and come into Week 7 this season at 4-2.

Up next for the Maroons is a trip to Sterling to face the team that dominated the last few years of the Northern Illinois Big 12.

“We talk about it all the time: we’re going to come into this league and make noise right away,” Sterling quarterback Cooper Willman said. “We’re not going to sit back. We’re going to make a statement for ourselves. They’re the big dogs in this one, and for us to come in and hopefully pull off the W, that’s big for us.”

In their third year under coach Mike Morrissey, the Maroons are now 13-1 in conference play, and need one more win to qualify for the playoffs for the fourth time in the past 5 years.

“We think this is the best team we’ve seen,” Sterling coach Jon Schlemmer said. “Offensively, defensively, special teams, they’re coached up well. It all starts offensive line-wise. That’s where you can separate a really good team versus a really, really, really good team. We think their five offensive linemen are really good players.”

Like Sterling, Moline comes in with a powerful and diverse rushing attack. Aboubacar Barry came into the season expected to be Moline’s featured back, and has largely delivered on that promise with 618 rushing yards on 82 carries. But even when he left last week’s game against Galesburg early with a minor injury, the Maroons' rushing attack continued on thanks to 138 yards and two touchdowns from Kaiden Dreifurst, and 105 yards and two scores from Jaheim Mitchell. Dreifurst now leads the team in rushing with 97 carries for 716 yards.

“I’m expecting them to pound the ball and come right at us and give us their best game,” Hanrahan said.“We have to get in front of them, get our tackles and just get them down.”

As a team, the Maroons have gained 1,938 yards on the ground in six games.

Moline also has a versatile passing attack with receivers Nate Johnson, Jacob Pauwels and Immanuel Bailey. Quarterback Zidain Sterling has completed 16 of 42 passes this year for 339 yards and four touchdowns, finding Johnson six times for 147 yards.

“They run good routes,” Schlemmer said. “They’re a run-first team, but if you sleep on them, they make you hurt.”

While Moline’s offensive line has played well this season, so has Sterling’s. Behind that line, the Warriors have built their own multi-faceted rushing attack, with Willman gaining 179 yards against Quincy, and Jahshawn Howard following that effort up with 215 yards of his own last week at Rock Island.

“This line this year is just incredible,” Willman said. “There’s not many plays you’re getting tackled in the backfield. You’re getting at least 2, 3 yards. I think our line can adjust really well.”

Defensively, Moline has allowed 135 points through six games, giving up 28 points in back-to-back games against Lisle Benet and Rock Island, then giving up 31 in the loss to Alleman the following week.

“Some of our sets, we’ve seen them give different looks,” Schlemmer said. “They’ve rotated quite a few guys in, and I think their depth, at this time of the year when you’ve played as many guys as they’ve played defensively, I think that’s to their benefit.”

In their loss to Alleman, Moline gave up several big plays to Pioneers’ running back Nate Sheets, who Sterling had mostly bottled up the week before. But overall, Moline’s defense has been pretty solid against the run all year.

Even if the Warriors go to the air, the Maroons have the ability to stop that. Schlemmer sees Moline senior safety Zion Rodriguez as a tough player who can cause a lot of problems.

“We’ve played a lot of different teams earlier in the year, we’ve see a lot of different defenses, and they’re playing one of those defenses,” Willman said. “I feel like our line and our blockers know what they’re doing, but they have some guys that we’ve got to know where they’re at at all times. They’re going to come and hit us, so we’ve got to hit them in the mouth.”

Sterling is unbeaten and has already clinched a spot in the playoffs, but the Warriors feel there is still more to do.

“We’re not there, we’re not at that point where we’re doing everything right,” Willman said. “There’s always something to adjust.”

Moline at Sterling

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Roscoe Eades Stadium

Radio: 105.5 FM

Twitter: @Eric_Ingles