EUREKA, Ill. -- The Eureka College football team continued its march to an Upper Midwest Athletic Conference title on Saturday, rallying from a 5-point halftime deficit to overcome Minnesota Morris for a 14-7 league win at McKinzie Field. The victory was the 37th of Kurt Barth's career, making the eighth-year head coach the winningest coach in program history.
Additionally, Saturday's win over UMM improves the Red Devils to 8-1 overall, 7-1 in the UMAC and maintains a first-place league tie with Northwestern (Minn.). The Eagles will visit McKinzie Field next Saturday at noon. The winner of that contest will win the UMAC outright and represent the league in the Division III playoffs.
Eureka is in search of its first-ever UMAC title and its first football conference crown of any kind since winning the Illini-Badger Football Conference championship in 1995. A victory next Saturday over Northwestern would vault the Red Devils into the national postseason for just the third time in the 125-year history of the program and the first time since beginning an exclusive affiliation with NCAA Division III in 1996. Eureka previously qualified for the national playoffs as a member of the NAIA in 1991 and 1994.
The Red Devils were forced to play from behind Saturday after the Cougars marched 87 yards on 14 plays on their second possession of the day. Quarterback Donnie Mavencamp put the visitors on the board with a 10-yard touchdown strike to Taylor Holleman at the 4:55 mark of the opening quarter.
Eureka drove into the red zone in an effort to even the score midway through the second quarter, but the push stalled when Sergio Natividad intercepted EC quarterback Drew Barth (Minonk, Ill./Fieldcrest H.S.) at the Eureka 1. The Red Devils regained the momentum on the next play when junior linebacker Chris Friend (Washington, Ill./Washington H.S.) corralled Evan Guffey on an end-around in the end zone for a safety and a 7-2 EC deficit.
The score remained 7-2 in favor of the Cougars for the rest of the half. A 13-yard strike from quarterback Colton Johnson (Lewistown, Ill./Lewistown H.S.) to Brandon Vinson (Hoffman Estates, Ill./Conant H.S.) pushed the Red Devils into UMM territory in the final minute of the half, but three straight incompletions forced a punt and ended the threat.
The hosts claimed their first lead of the day late in the third quarter on a 4-yard touchdown scramble from Barth on 4th-and-2 with 3:05 left in the frame. The play put an exclamation point on a 12-play, 63-yard drive and pushed the Red Devils in front, 8-7, after the 2-point conversion attempt was unsuccessful.
Eureka extended its lead to 14-7 on the first play of the fourth quarter when Barth found sophomore receiver Josh Kuse (Heyworth, Ill./Heyworth H.S.) for a 47-yard touchdown catch and run along the Eureka sideline.
The Red Devils nearly put the contest out of reach on their next possession, chewing more than seven minutes off the clock before the 12-play drive stalled at the UMM 9 with 3:11 remaining.
Trailing by seven in the final minutes, the Cougars drove 64 yards in less than three minutes in their bid to tie the contest or take the lead. Facing 4th-and-4 at the Eureka 27 with 35 seconds left, Mavencamp was intercepted by Eureka senior linebacker Dakota Padilla (Sandwich, Ill./Sandwich H.S.), securing the Red Devils' eighth victory.
Barth ran for a career-high 127 yards on 20 carries, the first time a Eureka quarterback has exceeded 100 yards rushing since Nick Lindsey ran for 150 yards against Crown on Nov. 7, 2009. Barth added 121 passing yards on 11 completions.
Sophomore Matt Hartke (Fairbury, Ill./Prairie Central H.S.) tacked on 63 yards on 11 rushes and classmate LeAnthony Reasnover (Momence, Ill./Momence H.S.) added 39 yards on 16 attempts, giving the Red Devils 228 rushing yards for the game. Reasnover now has 1,049 rushing yards in 2016, making him the fifth player in program history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season and the first since Greg McBroom ran for 1,086 in 1999. Reasnover's 1,925 career rushing yards are sixth-most in program history and 97 yards shy of Garyion Dunlap (1970-73) for fifth place on the all-time Eureka list.
Freshman Nick Reno (Guyton, Ga./South Effingham H.S.) hauled in four receptions for 22 yards and Kuse finished with 66 receiving yards. The duo led a group of eight EC receivers to catch a pass.
Friend led the EC defensive unit with 12 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss. Senior Rocky Boyer (East Peoria, Ill./East Peoria H.S.) added eight stops and 1.5 tackles for loss. The Red Devils limited UMM to just 206 yards for the afternoon.
Saturday's win moved Kurt Barth in front of Eureka College Hall of Famer Ralph McKinzie on the program's all-time wins list. McKinzie, who starred on the gridiron for the Red Devils from 1916 until 1920, won 36 games as the Red Devils' third head coach between 1921 and 1937.
Eureka will go for the outright UMAC title next Saturday against Northwestern. Kickoff against the Eagles is scheduled for noon.