Game Preview: Cherokee Trail at Mullen football

Catch Cherokee Trail at Mullen tonight on ESPNU at 7:30 EST/5:30 MST.

ESPN Recruiting Preview | Cyler Miles Interview | Cherokee Trail coach Monte Thelen Q&A

It hasn't been an easy week for the Cherokee Trail football team.

Last week, the Cougars prepared for one of the top young quarterbacks in the state — Heritage junior Ryan Novak, who's earned interest from top colleges such as Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas A&M and others. Unfortunately, the preparation wasn't enough. Despite jumping out to an early lead, Cherokee Trail fell in a heartbreaking 21-20 game.

Tonight, the Cougars face off against three-time reigning state champ Mullen, led by arguably the state's best quarterback. Cyler Miles, who earned Denver Post All-Colorado honors last year, is a University of Washington recruit who threw for more than 2,100 yards last season and threw only two interceptions.

And did we mention Mullen lost for the first time in 35 games last week, and the Mustangs are out for revenge?

The storylines alone are enough to make this showdown a must-see event. Add that it's a nationally televised broadcast (ESPNU, 7:30 EST/5:30 MST) and suddenly it's one of the state's most compelling games. So we put together some of the storylines you'll need to know about for the game.

1. It's September, but this game means a lot to both of these teams.

Cherokee Trail has a comfortable win and a tough one-point loss so far this season. Mullen has an identical 1-1 record with a comfortable early win over Chaparral and a five-point loss to Grandview. A second loss for either team would be a big hit to the team's playoff chances. And while there's still time to recover, a loss ultimately means more than a win in this game. A loss for Cherokee Trail would be an indication that the Cougars can't yet handle the state's better teams. A loss for Mullen would have Mustang Nation wondering if the state title ride is over.

2. It's the Year of the Quarterback, and the QBs in this matchups are both outstanding.

We've already mentioned Miles, Mullen's outstanding senior QB. The Washington pledge threw three touchdown passes in the team's first game against Chaparral, but he equaled his INT total from all of last year with two picks in the loss to Grandview. After the tough outing (16 of 26, 165 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT) he'll be eager to get back into a rhythm and show off his great arm and outstanding speed.

Cherokee Trail has a playmaker under center, too. Senior QB/DB Thomas Singleton is an extremely athletic player who can beat teams with his arm or his feet, and he may be even better on the defensive side of the ball. He didn't play in Cherokee Trail's loss to Heritage after rehabbing a shoulder injury. But Cougars head coach Monte Thelen says Singleton is back and practicing with the team and should be ready to go.

3. The quarterbacks aren't the only talented players on these teams, though.

Cherokee Trail senior running back Austin Ruff is described by his coach as a "renaissance man." Ruff spent his summer in New York composing his own songs on the piano at a music camp. At his first game back he scored two touchdowns and nearly led the Singleton-less Cougars to a victory. He's one of several rushers for Cherokee Trail, but he'll certainly be a runner to watch.

For Mullen, Patrick Healy leads the team in tackles with 21. The junior linebacker has already verbally committed to the Air Force. He's joined on the defensive side of the ball by senior Tyler Henington, a Colorado commit who had 11 sacks last season on the defensive line.

4. These 1-1 records are not typical.

This is tough timing for Cherokee Trail. It would be one thing to try to knock off the reigning state champs on a normal week, which is tough enough. But there's added incentive for Mullen after the Mustangs' 34-game winning streak was snapped last week against Grandview. "Yeah, I was surprised," says Cherokee Trail head coach Monte Thelen of Mullen's loss. "But that Grandview team is well respected around the state."

It's easy to say that Mullen will take out its frustrations against the next team on the schedule. But it doesn't get easier from here. Cherokee Trail went 11-2 last year, losing in the 5A semifinals by just one point to Regis. Had the Cougars advanced to the state title game, the score might have been a little closer than Mullen's eventual 37-6 win over Regis.

5. The winner of the game is...

This is a tough matchup for Mullen. The Mustangs have plenty of Division I college recruits, outstanding skill players, a wealth of talent on the defensive side of the ball and one of the nation's top quarterbacks. But Cherokee Trail has players who make plays. The return of Singleton gives the Cougars a new dimension on both sides of the ball, and the team speed that will test Mullen's athleticism.

That said, the state champs are the state champs until someone else wins it.

PREDICTION: Mullen 31, Cherokee Trail 21