WALESKA – Reinhardt will get a rematch from the first round of last year’s playoffs Saturday when Concordia visits Ken White Field for the opening round.
The No. 4 Eagles (9-1) handled the 13th-ranked Cardinals (9-2) last season 39-10, but Reinhardt coach James Miller said he expects a close game this year.
“I think we’re a little different, and they’re different,” he said. “They have a lot of the same players. It’s going to be a brawl. That’s for sure. They’re physical. We’re physical, so it’s going to be fun to play them again.”
Concordia is one of the few teams in the nation that can match Reinhardt’s success defensively this season.
Led by linebackers Jay Koski and Andrew O’Hara, the Cardinals rank ninth nationally with just 277.3 yards allowed per game. They only allow 13.5 points per game – good for fifth in the NAIA.
“They play hard and run to the ball,” Miller said. “You can tell they’re well coached. They’re thick in the middle. They’re physical. You always have to play your best in the playoffs to get the job done.”
Even more concerning are the 30 takeaways Concordia has produced this season, while only giving the ball away 11 times.
With Billy Hall at quarterback, Reinhardt has been fairly successful at winning the turnover battle, finishing the season with a plus-5 margin, but avoiding game-changing plays has been an emphasis during preparation.
“They’re opportunistic,” Miller said. “The make a lot of plays to get the ball back. Taking care of the football is going to be a huge thing. We can’t fumble it or throw picks. We have to play smart and sound. I think we started doing that last week with the penalties, so hopefully, we can carry some of that over.”
Around Hall, who will return this week after missing the last game with an undisclosed injury, will be a shortened running back rotation.
As rosters are cut to 58 players, the Eagles had to make some cuts anyway, but with the season on the line, Miller said the plan was always to rely heavily on leading rushers Montralius Mosely, Jace Jordan and M’Calun Lanier.
“At this point, you want your best players out there,” Miller said. “Everyone needs to play well. We’re going to need someone to step up somewhere, but you want you need your best players to be playing their best. You want some guys out there as much as possible.”
When Concordia has the ball, Reinhardt will have to prepare to stop the run and pass on nearly every play.
The Cardinals have been split nearly down the middle this season with 2,292 rushing yards and 2,028 passing yards, so Miller said the onus will be on the defense to stick to the game plan.
“It’s one of those games where we’re really just worried about us,” Miller said. “You have to be. You can’t really guess what they’re trying to do, because they’ll change it up and do something else.”
The Cardinals are led by 6-foot, 215-pound running back Joe Connor, who has 1,285 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. Quarterback Roger Engle has added 1,872 yards and 12 scores through the air, but regardless of who takes the lead Saturday, Miller is looking for his defensive line to make the difference.
The trio of J.T. Graydon (14 sacks, 16 tackles for loss), Tevin McCoy (nine sacks, 15 tackles for loss) and Teon Burroughs (seven sacks, 11½ tackles for loss) has combined for 30 sacks and 42½ tackles for loss this season, and Reinhardt’s defense, which ranks third in total defense and seventh in scoring defense, has always started with that group.
With games expected to be closer during the playoffs, special teams could play a larger role, and Miller is fine with that.
After some struggles earlier in his career, kicker Nick Marquez is having his best season handling kickoffs, field goals and punting duties.
He has made 53-of-57 extra points and 7-of-10 field goals with a long of 50 yards. He is also averaging a conference-best 41.5 yards per punt
“He’s my favorite kicker,” Miller said. “We’re at the point where we really trust him, and you can tell he trusts himself. We think he’s a weapon, and if he gives us a chance to win a game, we’re going to use him.”