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Neuqua Valley's Joey Rhattigan (36) bolts forward during the second quarter at South Elgin High School in South Elgin, Ill., on Saturday, September 8, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~For Sun-Times Media |
The task of denying Neuqua Valley’s offense access to the end zone would appear fairly simple:
Stop running back Joey Rhattigan.
The 6-foot, 200-pound senior carried the ball 41 times for 294 yards and three touchdowns Saturday in the Warriors’ 23-20 Class 8A quarterfinal win over Waubonsie Valley.
Not so fast, says Mount Carmel coach Frank Lenti.
“They’re a run-first team, but they’ll do a combination of both,” said Lenti, whose 11-1 Caravan travels to Neuqua Valley for a Class 6A semifinal at 6 p.m. Saturday. “They’re not 12-0 for no reason. They don’t make a lot of mistakes. They don’t quit. They were down 14-0 and came back to win last week.
“What they do they do very well. We’re going to have to play darn good football.”
Unlike Neuqua Valley, one of Mount Carmel’s biggest strengths is its diversity on offense.
The Caravan (11-1) favors the running game, distributing the carries between quarterback Don Butkus and running backs Matt Domer (121 carries, 1,144 yards, 19 touchdowns) and Draco Smith (119, 719, 9).
That trio have prevented opponents from keying on one player, which could spell trouble for a Neuqua Valley defense that has allowed 244 points.
The Caravan, however, can and will pass the ball. Butkus has completed 62-of-117 passes for 944 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“Hey, we’d like to run the ball and eat up clock,” Lenti said. “From our end, we want to stay on the field and keep their offense off the field. But we’ve shown we can throw the ball. It’s helpful when you have (receivers) Dominic (Villa), Vinnie (Speller) and Jason (Gasser).”
Another strength for the Caravan is its kicking game. Ivan Strmic consistently finds the end zone on kickoffs and punter Joe Pavlik is averaging 47 yards a punt.
Those types of legs almost assures Neuqua Valley of having to drive considerable yards to reach pay dirt.
“We have a great kicker and a great punter,” Lenti said. “We’d like to make them (Neuqua Valley) drive the ball a long way.”
Completing those long scoring drives has proven to be difficult against a Mount Carmel defense that has allowed just 89 points all season. Still, Neuqua Valley has piled up 520 points against quality competition.
As far as having to go on the road, Lenti isn’t one to buy into home field advantage.
“The time I’ve been head coach (29 years), we’ve won more games on the road than at home,” said Lenti, 324-59 during his career. “People think Gately (Stadium) is such an advantage for us, but it’s a public facility.”
This marks the 21st time in the past 27 years the Caravan has reached the semifinals.
If Mount Carmel can upend Neuqua Valley, it will advance to its 15th state title game in the past 26 years. On the contrary, the Warriors hadn’t advanced past the second round until this season.
Lenti considers a fast start Saturday a major key.
“Any time you’re on the road, you want to get off to a fast start,” Lenti said. “We also have to take advantage of our opportunities and stay away from the turnovers.”