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It may be tricky to find two hungrier football teams in this year's state championship showdowns in DeKalb than Byron and Tolono Unity. The two meet 4 p.m. Friday in the Class 3A finale inside NIU's Huskie Stadium.
Byron has dropped the last two 3A state championship games by four points each. The Tigers did win one, but that was back in 1999, when now-coach Jeff Boyer was a senior captain and quarterback.
"In (20)18 and (20)19 they wanted to win the state title as bad as anybody," Boyer said. "But now, these kids really want to be the ones. They've got the experience from 2019, and they want it to end a little bit differently."
Byron's dramatic semi win: Byron scores on 4th down, makes conversion at :05 to squeeze into title game
Unity is 0-5 in state championship games, having never pulled one out despite making it to the big game five times under 28th-year coach Scott Hamilton. Unity last made it in 3A in 2015, and are trying to erase all of those setbacks with one big finish.
Unity lost all of its state title games by 21 or more points, including a 50-7 setback to Kankakee McNamara six years ago.
"Yeah, we found a way to blow it five times in these games," Hamilton said. "But I'm not approaching it any differently in this one. All we can do is get our kids ready and focused. Then they lay it on the line for 48 minutes, and hope it's enough."
Learn from the past
Boyer believes they have grown from the last two title losses, even though only four of the players on this year's starting roster played in the 2019 finale.
"There's no doubt I look back at how we did it in the years past, and learn," Boyer said. "And all year, we coach the kids like we're going after the state title, so they're ready by this time."
And those from Byron have learned they can't celebrate their achievements until the final buzzer of the final game. Even after a dramatic, come-from-behind win like the one Byron celebrated on Saturday.
WHATttt! Byron comes back, wins 15-14, and is in 3A state championships. Binkley TD with 5 sec left and Binkley 2-pter. Here it is… pic.twitter.com/RJRah4xKK1
— Jay Taft (@JayTaft) November 21, 2021
"We can't enjoy anything too much yet," Byron's star running back Chandler Binkley said after the semifinal win. "Whatever it takes, we've got to win that game next week."
Unity lost in the second round of the 4A playoffs in 2017 and 2019, and went 4-5 and did not make the postseason in 2018. Now, it's back down in 3A, and making its first run with this group of players.
And while Byron is about 90-percent pass, 10-percent run, Unity is closer to 65-percent run, 35-percent pass. These are two different style of offenses, but both have found a way to grind into the state championship game.
Who to watch
Undefeated Unity (13-0) used touchdowns from quarterback Blake Kimball and running back Matt Brown to hold off Mount Carmel 28-21 last week. But Unity led 14-0 early, trailed 21-14 at half, and had to battle back just to get to Friday's state title showdown.
"Our kids at no point got their heads down or started bickering," Hamilton said. "And they kind of found that extra gear there in the fourth."
Unity starts 22 different players, led on defense by senior linebacker Grant Albaugh.
Byron has a lot of two-way players, and it has also been churning up the yards on the ground all year. But, as expected, they haven't come as easy of late.
Led by Binkley, who has 1,228, yards on 151 carries with 16 touchdowns through 13 games, the Tigers blew out nine of their first 11 opponents of the season. The Tigers used as many as 10 ballcarriers in a contest, and consistently controlled the clock.
But the last two weeks, Byron has had to scratch and claw its way back to the state finals. The Tigers scored the game-winner with nine seconds left in the quarterfinals and with five ticks remaining in the semis.
"We're pretty happy, you could say, and we're going to enjoy this, for sure," said Binkley, who scored the game-winning TD and the 2-point conversion Saturday. "But, now we've got another one next week, so we know we can't get too hyped yet. … We have more work to do."
Byron quarterback Braden Smith has been a threat to run or throw throughout the postseason, and the Tigers defense has come up big when needed. Both of those especially shown through down the stretch of the semi showdown — a rematch of Elmhurst IC Catholic's 7-0 win over Byron in the 2017 semis.
"We showed what we can do on defense," Smith said. "And we've showed we can do it in a lot of different ways on offense, too.
"This is it. We're ready."
This article originally appeared on Rockford Register Star: IHSA football championships: Byron vs. Tolono Unity - who's hungrier