Throughout the second half of the regular season, both the Fieldcrest Knights and Clifton Central Comets spent time ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the Associated Press' Class 2A state poll, a narrow margin between them.
The teams, along with the media, will find out actually who is better Saturday when top-ranked and No. 3 seed Clifton Central (11-0) and No. 2-rated and second-seeded Fieldcrest (11-0) clash in a matchup of unbeatens at Veterans Park in Minonk.
The 2A quarterfinal is scheduled to kickoff at 3:30 p.m.
"We always had a feeling if the season went how we thought it would, we'd meet up with Clifton at some point in the playoffs," Knights coach Derek Schneeman said. The schools also met in the 2014 quarters, a 45-22 Fieldcrest win in Clifton.
"This should be a lot of fun Saturday; I'm really looking forward to it."
"We know Fieldcrest because of five years ago and, obviously with us and them being so high in the rankings most of the season," said Comets coach Brian Spooner, whose squad was No. 1 in the Week 5 poll and the final one, while Fieldcrest held the top spot from Weeks 6-9.
Clifton Central, champion of the Sangamon Valley Conference, defeated playoff qualifiers Seneca (28-15), Watseka (33-7) and 3A quarterfinalist Paxton-Buckley-Loda (28-14) during the regular season, in addition to beating Mendon Unity (62-28) and Aledo Mercer County (39-28) in the postseason.
"They play in a good conference ... and they've beaten a couple of good teams in the playoffs so far," Schneeman said of the Comets, whom he compared to Eureka, which the Knights edged 21-17, "so we definitely have our hands full."
Triggering Clifton Central's spread attack that's averaging 41.1 points per game is talented junior QB Jay Lemenager, who's completing nearly 60% percent of his attempts (110 of 184) for 1,965 yards and 25 TDs with 3 INTs for an NFL Passer Rating of 129.2. He's ran for 834 yards and 13 TDs on 107 carries as well.
Lemenager's targets include classmates Jacob Shoven (39 receptions, 911 yards — 23.4 per catch — 12 TDs) and Chandler Burrow (30-540-18.0-8). Another 11th-grader, junior Garrett Graham, has rushed for 994 yards and 16 TDs on 123 carries (8.1 per carry).
The Knights are yielding just 7.3 ppg. Spearheading that stout defense are nose guard Mason Faulk, linebacker Travis Sunken and Jaxon Cusac-McKay in the secondary.
"They are explosive. They rely on the big play," Schneeman said of Clifton Central's offense. He added that Lemenager is one of the best throwers that's he seen at the small-school level during his time at Fieldcrest, which began in 2014. "They just have athletes all over the field. They make you defend the whole field.
"The main thing for us is to try to prevent the big play, make them go on multiple-play drives and force them to execute all the way down the field. Hopefully, we keep everything in front of us. We've got to stay fundamentally-sound and disciplined; everybody just needs to focus on doing their job."
"Our key on offense is to be efficient," Spooner said. "We're not going to score every drive, but we need to make sure we don't put ourselves in bad situations. We need to be able to get positive yards on every down and get first downs as often as possible."
The Comets are allowing 19.5 ppg. Through 10 games, Graham had 99 total tackles from the inside linebacker position, while 6-3, 270-pound senior defensive tackle/end Caleb Toberman had 19 tackles for loss, including six sacks, and three fumble recoveries. Cornerbacks Shoven (school-record nine) and Burrow (eight) have combined for 17 interceptions.
Fieldcrest is averaging 33.7 points and 357.4 yards per game (211.2 rushing, 145.6 passing), led by the trio of running back Kenton Castrejon (218 carries, 1,444 yards, 24 TDs), quarterback Matt Lorton (96-171, 1,229 yards, 12 TDs, 6 INTs) and receiver Cusac-McKay (47-629-9). Cory Land and Cusac-McKay have become more involved in the ground game the past two weeks. Faulk also anchors the O-line at left guard.
"They have a good defensive line; they're big and physical. Their linebackers do a pretty good job of filling (gaps) and reading their keys. And their secondary's tremendously talented," Schneeman said. "The (amount of) turnovers they've caused is just astronomical. They're very opportunistic.
"We need to establish the line of scrimmage and make sure we take care of the ball and do what's given us success this season, which is get Kenton and Jaxon going — make sure they get their touches — and, hopefully we can be a little more effective in the passing game."
"We're going to have to get penetration to disrupt the run game," Spooner said, "and in the pass game we're going to have to play tight coverage."
Clifton Central Comets (11-0) at Fieldcrest Knights (11-0)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Veterans Park, Minonk
Last meeting: Fieldcrest 45, Clifton Central 22 (2014)
FND pick: Fieldcrest