No. 7 Reinhardt’s Mid-South Conference Appalachian Division opener this weekend could also be its most important game of the season as the Eagles travel to Cumberlands.
The game will pit the division’s top two teams against one another as Reinhardt (3-1) looks to avoid another upset against the 13th-ranked Patriots (5-0), who have already beaten a pair of ranked teams this season.
“Every game in the division is huge,” Reinhardt coach James Miller said. “This is a big one. We battle them a lot in recruiting. They do a good job up there. They’re a very well-coached team. They have a lot of Georgia guys. It’s turned into a rivalry for us, so we definitely have to show up there ready to go.”
The game will also feature two of the top rushing offenses in the nation.
The return of M’Calun Lanier, alongside Montralius Mosely, Jace Jordan and Qua Stocks has propelled the Eagles back to the top of the NAIA with 329.8 rushing yards per game.
However, Cumberlands has shown it can move the ball on the ground too, ranking 10th nationally with 255.4 rushing yards per game behind Blessed Trinity product Milton Shelton.
“We have to make them one dimensional,” Miller said. “They have a really good running back. He’s a really good player. We have to play well up front and at the linebacker position to stop them from running the football. This is by far the best offense we’ve seen this season.”
The Eagles have held opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards per game this season, but they will face a different kind of test against the Patriots’ spread looks.
Stacking the box inside will not be an option, so it will come down to the likes of Tevin McCoy, Teon Burroughs, J.T. Graydon and B.J. Holden to win their individual battles along the line.
“You’re going to have to make plays within your assignment,” Miller said. “It starts with you as an individual and then goes to us as a team. You have to do what you’ve been coached to do, but when you’re in position to make the play, you have to make the play.”
As the Eagles’ defense tries to force Cumberlands to be one dimensional, their offense has to avoid doing just that.
Quarterback Billy Hall and the Reinhardt passing game have improved each week, and the Eagles got a big boost last week from the emergence of Brian Tillery, who set team season highs with five catches for 92 yards.
“We want to establish the run like every week and we want to be able to take some shots off of that,” Miller said. “We have to put the ball in our playmakers hands and give them a chance to make something happen.”
As tough as Cumberlands looks coming into the game, Reinhardt will also have to contend with a 7 p.m. start time.
In the program’s history, the Eagles have posted an impressive .790 winning percentage, but they are just 4-4 in games that start at 6 p.m. or later.
That record includes losses in each of their last two late starts, but Miller said he has learned from a season-opening loss to Bethel and has made some changes.
“I talked to some of the veteran players,” he said. “I think we need to change some things. It’s a long day when you play at night. If you get hyped too early, it can drain your energy, so we’re just focused on peaking at the right time.”