CHAMPAIGN — When the Champaign Central football team’s defense has played well this season, wins have followed.
When the Maroons have struggled stopping teams this season, well, losses have ensued.
With three Big 12 Conference games remaining and their playoff fate in the balance, coach Tim Turner sure would like sound defensive performances down the stretch.
Especially with a road game against potent Peoria (5-1, 4-1 Big 12) looming for the Maroons (3-3, 3-2) at 7 p.m. Friday.
The Lions are averaging a league-best 57.3 points per game, with the only time they haven’t scored at least 44 points coming in a 66-36 home loss to Normal West in Week 5.
“They are so balanced offensively,” Turner said. “It’s going to be about the fundamentals for us and trying to get stops where we can. They’re a great offense, and if we can slow them down even a little, that’ll be a good sign.”
Central will try to avoid its first losing streak of the season on Friday night and also look for defensive improvements. In its three losses this season, the Maroons have given up an average of 52.7 points. In its three wins? A significant drop, with opponents only averaging 13 points per game.
Granted, the Maroons haven’t beaten a team that currently has a winning record in Centennial (0-6), Urbana (1-5) and Peoria Richwoods (2-4), while its three losses have all come against teams with at least a .500 record heading into Week 7 in Metamora (3-3), Peoria Notre Dame (4-2) and Danville (4-2). So Friday night is not only a vital game for Central’s postseason hopes, but also to show they can beat a superb program. On the road, no less.
“My guys are a pretty confident group, and with the situation we’re in, we want an opportunity to play in the postseason,” Turner said. “We’re not going to have to fire up our guys at all going into Peoria.”
The play of senior linebacker Jabali Maatuka, who is also Central’s starting quarterback, and his team-high 80 tackles stands out. So, too, do the contributions of senior cornerback Sam Chapman, along with the defensive line trio of senior Nicholas Gunn, senior Jadyn Williams and junior Brian Becker.
“Last week, we took some lumps against Danville, but before that game, I’d put the defensive line against anybody in the area,” Turner said. “Those guys have been outstanding.”
Aside from the Maroons’ defense, how Central handles its special teams, specifically its kickoffs off the foot of senior Pryce Punkay, could have a significant effect on Friday night’s outcome. The Maroons are prone to attempting frequent onside kicks, which could give Peoria solid field position to start a drive if Central can’t come up with the recovery.
“What my philosophy is if we can’t kick it in the end zone, we’re going to onside kick,” Turner said. “I hate to kick it to their best guy because if teams were going to score from 80 yards away, chances are they’ll score from 50 yards away.”
Turner said this stance dates back to his time when he was an assistant coach under former Central coach Nate Albaugh, where Turner helped out with the special teams, including on the 2015 Maroons team that reached the Class 5A state semifinals.
“The kids really kind of flock to the idea of it,” Turner said. “They want to do it every time, and they fully expect to get the ball back. To me, it’s worth the risk, especially if my defense is playing pretty well.”