There is reason for optimism in Morrison.

It wasn't that long ago the Mustangs were among the best small-school football programs in Illinois, going 88-21 and making the playoffs every time in a nine-year span, highlighted by a pair of state titles in 2009 and 2011.

But recently, the program has fallen on tough times.

Dwindling participation numbers have handicapped the Mustangs to a 9-27 record in the last four years, and with a varsity roster of 20 to start this season, it looked like it could be another tough year.

However, the Mustangs have been perhaps the biggest surprise of the early season.

Morrison has started the season off with wins over Sherrard, Hall and Kewanee. The Mustangs have outscored their first three opponents 107-48 and have been led by Aaron Deter and Grant Slater, who both cracked the century mark in rushing yards and combined for five touchdowns in last week's 41-28 win over Kewanee.

The Mustangs face a huge test this week, hosting Class 2A No. 1 Sterling Newman. The two teams had some battles over the years, including meeting three times in the playoffs between 2006 and 2011.

Recently however, the Comets have dominated the matchup, winning the last five meetings by a combined score of 181-15.

Unlike the Mustangs, the Comets have some depth, with 30 players on the varsity roster and a stable of running backs to turn to.

It will be a tough task for Morrison to pull off the upset, but thanks to the strong start to the season, the Mustangs have a really solid shot at making the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

Just two more wins will have the Mustangs eligible. With what's expected to be a high opponents' wins total, that might be enough to have Morrison playing after the regular season ends.

Still flying high: Austin Smith's versatility for the Midland Eagles was featured last week but the senior running back had an even more impressive performance in a 66-33 win over WACO.

Smith rushed for 281 yards and six touchdowns, was 2-of-3 passing for 57 yards and a touchdown and caught two passes for 55 yards and two touchdowns.

All told, Smith accounted for 393 of his team's 507 yards and nine touchdowns. His 590 rushing yards is sixth in the state regardless of class. Smith already has 15 touchdowns and 802 all-purpose yards. He is on pace for more than 2,400 total yards and 45 touchdowns by the end of the regular season.

Tops of the state: Smith isn't the only area player enjoying a strong individual start to the season. Northeast's Nate Lange has thrown for 727 yards, eighth in the state regardless of class, and two of his receivers are having solid starts.

Dawson Stoll is sixth in 2A with 310 receiving yards and second with 24 catches while teammate Luke Empen is fourth in 2A with 21 catches and tied for sixth with four touchdown receptions.

In 1A, Bellevue's Trey Daugherty is second in the state with 269 receiving yards while Wilton's Cory Anderson is seventh with 231 and leads the class with 20 catches.

Bellevue's Hunter Clasen is fourth in 1A with 519 yards and tops with 11 touchdowns while Columbus Community's Abel Mena is eighth with 406 rushing yards.

There are also three quarterbacks in 1A who are having strong seasons. Bellevue's Cade Daugherty is second with 573 yards, Wapello's Logan Belzer is sixth with 540 yards, Jerome Mays is eighth with 480 and Louisa-Muscatine's Chase Kruse is ninth with 467.