While the possibility remains that the Eagles (5-3, 3-0 Mid-South West) could host a first-round NAIA tournament game when bids are handed out in two weeks, they would have to earn that right by taking care of business on the field.
Wins in each of the next two weeks — today against Cumberland and next week at Campbellsville — would make Reinhardt the champion of the Mid-South Conference’s Western Division. It would also help the Eagles’ case in moving up in the NAIA coaches’ poll, which is one of the determining factors in which teams make the playoffs.
Coming off the team’s second bye week, Reinhardt coach Danny Cronic is feeling pretty good.
The time off helped the Eagles erase the memory of their last game, when they saw a big lead evaporate in the fourth quarter. At the same time, the University of the Cumberlands scored 21 unanswered points, en route to a 28-24 victory in Waleska.
“We are still going back and looking and thinking ‘what if,’ but you can’t do that,” Cronic said. “You have to glean from it what you can to get better, but you can’t dwell on it.”
Cronic said the coaches and players both learned from the loss, which snapped Reinhardt’s five-game winning streak. He expects to see many of those lessons applied today.
Perhaps the biggest difference that Cronic has seen has been in kicker Andrew Wilder. The freshman has routinely put kickoffs deep into the end zone during practice this week.
“He has really been kicking off well, and that will help us a bunch this week if he can put it deep in the end zone,” Cronic said. “Of course, they will still run it out, but it will still help us.”
Reinhardt boasts one of the top 10 rushing offenses in the NAIA, ranking 13th in total offense per game. Running back L.J. Stegall ranks in the top 15 nationally in all-purpose yards per game and is sixth in total scoring and seventh in scoring per game.
Defensively, defensive end Tevin McCoy ranks 10th in tackles for loss per game, while linebacker Blake Barnes in No. 11 in fumbles forced per game.
Most of the injuries that plagued the Eagles early in the season have passed. Running back P.J. Greene is expected to play in his second straight game, though he still isn’t 100 percent. Linebacker A.J. Thomas is questionable, while quarterbacks Ryan Thompson and Johnathon Chamblee are both healthy enough to play.
Still, Reinhardt won’t have it easy this week. Cumberland (5-4, 2-2) is defensively sound and can move the ball on offense.
“They don’t have any glaring weaknesses,” Cronic said of the Bulldogs. “They are pretty good. They have one of the best offensive linemen I have seen. They have had some real good teams in the last few years. They have been on a pretty good team. They’ll be a challenge.”
Cronic expects another big crowd for today’s potential home finale. He’s been pleased with the number of people who have turned out for the team’s first four home games, not just because it may have been the Eagles’ first home game or homecoming, but just for the sake of watching college football.
“They came to see football,” he said. “There was a different tenor about it. To get in that environment when you are trying to compete for a championship, that is a joy. This isn’t high school football. This is bigger, stronger, faster. It’s really something to see.”