After an impressive two-touchdown victory over Tolono Unity in the second round of the playoffs, Herrin travels to Rochester to take on the defending Class 4A state champs in the quarterfinals today at 4 p.m.
Rochester (11-0) has won the 4A state title in six of the past seven years.
“We played them here in the semifinals back in 2014 and felt like we had them on the ropes,” Herrin coach Jason Karnes said of his team’s 28-9 loss that season. “We felt like with a few breaks we could have been in the state championship game. Chase Merrill had a touchdown called back, he got hurt, and we were only down 6-3 at half. Merrill gets nine yards on the first play of the third quarter and breaks his collar bone. It just went south from there. Our coaching staff has always had it in the back of our mind that we’d like another crack at Rochester, and we’re getting that opportunity.”
The Rockets defeated Althoff Catholic, 41-23, a week ago. Nic Baker, the team’s only returning starter on offense, is having a tremendous season. The Rochester quarterback has thrown for 3,043 yards and 45 touchdowns this fall. He has also rushed for 373 yards and 11 scores.
“We had 10 new guys, so we were a little bit concerned outside of Nic,” said Rochester coach Derek Leonard. “We had a lot of seniors, but also a lot of inexperience. This isn’t the most athletic team I’ve had, but just from an execution standpoint, it has been a really good year.”
Inexperience or not, having Baker at quarterback is a pretty good place to start.
“He is 5-9 and a heck of player,” Leonard said. “He’s up there with some of the best players I’ve had. He’s special, and he can do it all. There is nothing he can’t do, and you’re just glad he’s on your side.”
The Tigers (10-1) will need an excellent game from its imposing offensive line and its great stable of running backs. Jase Gosha has rushed for 1,671 yards and 34 touchdowns, which is a school record. He is just over 100 yards away from the single-season rushing yards record as well.
“We’re not going to surprise anybody, and we’re not real flashy with a lot of trickery or whatever you want to call it,” Karnes said. “A lot of people are running the spread offense these days, and you can call me old fashioned or stuck back in the 70s and 80s. But we’re very effective with what we do on offense.”
But what if Herrin isn’t able to run the ball effectively in this game? Karnes plans on staying the course and hopes to eat up some clock with extended drives.
“I’m not going to bail out on it, and the play-action pass could be there for us,” Karnes said. “But there have been some games that have probably raised some eyebrows where we haven’t thrown a pass. Could we throw the ball a little more, yes. But that’s me, and I’m calling the plays.”
Besides Baker, Cade Eddington has enjoyed a huge year as the quarterback’s primary target. The junior has caught 67 passes for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“Coming into the year, I don’t know if I totally expected that, but I knew he was good,” Leonard said of Eddington. “I knew he had some talent, but it’s always hard to tell what they’re going to be from sophomore to junior year. He’s had a really good year, and he plays both ways. But we felt good about all of our receivers this year.”
The Rockets have three receivers with at least 500 yards this season. The Tigers secondary will be challenged for sure in this contest.
“There is not going to be a reporter or a radio guy or anybody outside of Herrin that will give us any chance at all in this game outside of myself, my staff, our kids and people in Herrin,” Karnes said. “But they’ve got to put their pads on just like us. It’s all about respect, especially for teams down here. Southern Illinois needs to get some respect across the state, and this is an opportunity to get some respect, but we have to execute.”