The Herald-News prep football capsules for Round 3 of the playoffs

Lincoln-Way East's quarterback Braden Tischer runs the ball during the class 8A second round playoff game against Minooka on Friday, Nov. 03, 2023, at Franfort. (Dean Reid for Shaw Local News Network)

Class 8A

Lincoln-Way East (11-0) at Gurnee Warren (9-2)

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Last matchup: Lincoln-Way East 35, Warren 14 (2022 8A playoffs)

About the Griffins: Lincoln-Way East advanced to the quarterfinals for the seventh consecutive playoff-contested season with a dominating win over Minooka in Round 2. Lincoln-Way East’s defense has been unbelievably hard on foes and netted 11 plays for loss in collecting its fourth shutout of the season. A defensive front that is anchored by LB Connor Durkin, who will end his career as Lincoln-Way East’s all-time leading tackler, and defensive linemen Caden O’Rourke and David Wuske is simply not allowing opponents to get their ground games going, which then forces teams to throw into an experienced secondary that knows how to do its job. Offensively, there’s not a lot of flash in the Griffins’ attack, but the two-headed monster of a backfield that features Zion Gist and Nuri Muhammad tends to get you one way or another. It’s not a quick-strike offense, but when coupled with Lincoln-Way East’s typical defensive effort, the Griffins simply don’t have to post a whole bunch of points.

About the Blue Devils: Warren has become something of a regular opponent for Lincoln-Way East, falling to the Griffins in the 2022 playoffs and the 2019 state championship game in a defensive struggle. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see this move into another defensive struggle, as both teams are quite solid there. Warren gave up 68 points in its first two games of the season, both losses, but has allowed only 72 points in the nine games since, all wins. The Blue Devils lean heavily on the ground game to move the football, as the tandem of senior Donovan McNeal and sophomore Aaron Stewart have combined for more than 2,700 yards and 43 touchdowns rushing. Stewart has rushed for more than 100 yards in nine of Warren’s 11 games. Warren doesn’t throw the ball much, completing an average of around three passes per game, but the Blue Devils aren’t afraid to sprinkle in the aerial attack if opponents place too much focus on trying to rein in the ground game.

Friday Night Drive pick: Lincoln-Way East

Class 7A

Downers Grove North (9-2) at Lincoln-Way West (9-2)

When: 2 p.m. Saturday

Last matchup: First meeting

About the Trojans: Downers Grove North has made quite the statement the first two rounds of the postseason, dispatching a Kenwood squad loaded with Division I-caliber talent and following that by toppling previously undefeated Hersey in Round 2. The Trojans’ offense has flipped a switch with the return of RB Noah Battle from a two-game injury absence, as he had big efforts in both the Kenwood and Hersey wins, also pulling a little bit of double duty as a defensive back. Junior QB Owen Lansu continues to put forth solid efforts, and if the Trojans need to put the ball in the air a bit more to advance, Lansu certainly has the tools to make that happen. A quiet contributor to Downers Grove North’s success has been a staunch defense that has allowed 17 points or fewer to opponents in all but three of the Trojans’ games this season.

About the Warriors: Lincoln-Way West has found another gear in the postseason, having overwhelmed Hoffman Estates and Collinsville to advance to the quarterfinals. It’s been an all-hands-on-deck philosophy for the Warriors in getting to this point, but considerably better play by the defense has set the tone for this postseason run. RB Joey Campagna has fueled the offense. He had a monster effort in the win over Collinsville, finishing with five touchdowns and well beyond 100 yards rushing. Campagna is closing in on 1,500 yards rushing on the season with 22 touchdowns. Lincoln-Way West is aiming for the school’s second appearance in the semifinals, with the 2015 run to the Class 5A title game accounting for the first, last and only time the program has reached such lofty heights.

FND pick: Downers Grove North

Class 5A

Joliet Catholic Academy's Keegan Farnaus (29) tries to elude a defender during the class 5A second round playoff game against Triad on Saturday, Nov. 04, 2023, at Joliet. (Dean Reid for Shaw Local News Network)

Joliet Catholic (8-3) at Morris (11-0)

When: 3 p.m. Saturday

Last matchup: Joliet Catholic 41, Morris 7 (2011 5A playoffs)

About Morris: Morris won a fierce battle with Sacred Heart-Griffin, but it might make winning the war more difficult. Substantial injuries to key players RB Jacob Swartz and WR AJ Zweeres could slow the standouts if not keep them out of the game entirely. If one or both aren’t at full strength, it may alter Morris’ ability to show the offensive balance that has given so many Morris opponents fits this season. The Sacred Heart-Griffin game was the first time all season in which Morris experienced a number of uncharacteristic mistakes, and although they eventually endured to pull out the victory, it did show some signs of potential trouble for Morris. For the first time all season, Morris trailed after each of the first three quarters and didn’t obtain its first lead until 10 minutes were left in the game, and then had to respond when the lead was taken away from it. Morris still is an excellent football team, and perhaps dealing with a little adversity here will pay dividends in future games.

About the Hilltoppers: Joliet Catholic has a blueprint that has suited it pretty well in recent seasons in the postseason and seems comfortable with good reason putting things in the hands of its potent defensive front. The Hilltoppers not only limited Triad’s offense significantly in the second round, but they also scored a pair of touchdowns on turnover returns from Zak Beitler and Nico Ronchetti. A capable defense usually does wonders for a team deep in the playoffs, and if the Hilltoppers can play at the level they are capable of on that side of the football, it eases the responsibility of the offense to post a truckload of points. Although considering the Hilltoppers have managed to post almost 100 points in two playoff games by going back to basics with a ground-based attack with HJ Grigsby out front, maybe they can do that, too.

FND pick: Morris

Highland (10-1) at Providence (7-4)

When: 3 p.m. Saturday

Last matchup: First meeting

About the Bulldogs: Highland, as its custom usually is, has had no problem posting points this season. The Bulldogs are averaging more than 40 points a game and are riding a nine-game winning streak. Their lone loss came all the way back in Week 2, where everything went wrong in a shutout loss to Mahomet-Seymour. Since then, things have hummed on offense, where QB Blake Gelly is completing about 70% of his passes and spreading the football around with confidence. RB Hunter Frey is both a threat running the football and catching the ball out of the backfield. The biggest question for Highland is which version of its defense will show up for this game? Will it be the one that allowed a touchdown or less to five consecutive opponents in the middle of the season, or the one that has allowed 80 points over the past three games?

About the Celtics: The roller-coaster ride that has been Providence’s season took another turn in Round 2, where the Celtics’ offense, which has scuffled through a large portion of the season, erupted for 42 first-half points and coasted to a win over Hillcrest to earn its place in the quarterfinals. Sophomore QB Leo Slepski put together one of his best efforts to date, throwing four touchdown passes and guiding a Celtics offense that as recently as the opening round of the playoffs struggled to sustain consistency. The Celtics have been able to get plays of consequence from its defensive and special teams units, and this is the time that those contributions can come in really handy. As always, Providence’s schedule gives it somewhat unique preparation for the postseason in smaller classifications, and this might be the stretch of season Providence has been prepping for the whole way.

FND pick: Providence

Class 2A

Wilmington (10-1) at Seneca (11-0)

When: 2 p.m. Saturday

Last matchup: Seneca 27, Wilmington 21 (2023 Week 1)

About the Wildcats: Wilmington expected to have a bit more of a fight on its hands in Round 2 against an undefeated Tri-Valley team that ousted it from the playoffs last year. But after Tri-Valley held a 14-7 lead through one quarter, the Wildcats promptly scored the game’s next 35 points to secure a runaway victory. The win mirrored many of Wilmington’s wins during its current 10-game winning streak, where its punishing running game set the tone for everything. Wilmington outgained Tri-Valley 375-44 and was never forced into a passing situation. RB Kyle Farrell led the attack once again, amassing over 200 yards on 22 carries, but he also got plenty of help from backfield mate Ryan Kettmann, as he scored three times during his 134-yard effort. After Tri-Valley’s first-quarter scoring, the Vikings were held to virtually no yardage over the final three quarters. Since allowing 27 points to Seneca in the season opener, Wilmington has allowed an average of nine points a game to its other 10 opponents.

About the Fighting Irish: Seneca was great in all three facets of the game in its Round 2 win over Rockridge, making multiple big plays on special teams to blow the game wide open. There are just too many offensive weapons on Seneca’s side for opponents to try to stop it. A 300-plus yard rushing attack almost seems like a given right now for the Fighting Irish, with quality backs such as Nathan Grant and Asher Hamby leading a multifaceted attack. QBs Paxton Giertz or Grant can also make a play downfield for Seneca if need be. The first meeting between Seneca and Wilmington was a back-and-forth battle before Seneca imposed its will and deployed its highly effective offensive line, one that has helped the Irish run for more than 3,000 yards this season, on a pivotal 15-play drive that decided it. There’s no big secret here. Whomever is able to establish what it wants to do in the trenches will find itself in the 2A semifinals.

FND pick: Wilmington