One week after its biggest win of the season, Reinhardt’s season abruptly came to an end.
Playing in cold and rainy conditions, the No. 13 Eagles lost 17-7 to No. 2 Marian on Saturday afternoon in the first round of the NAIA tournament in Indianapolis.
A game which had the feel of a quarterfinal- or semifinal-round matchup saw two of the best defenses in the country display dominance from start to finish.
“That’s one of the best defenses we’ve faced since I’ve been here,” Reinhardt coach James Miller said. “I was extremely proud of the effort on both sides of the ball. We fought, and we fought to the end. It was just two really good defenses going toe to toe.”
Reinhardt’s only score came on the first play of the game. Otis Odom returned the game’s opening kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown giving the Eagles (9-3) an early 7-0 lead.
Reinhardt intercepted Marian quarterback Ethan Darter on the Knights’ first two possessions — the second returned to the Marian 3-yard line — giving the Eagles a golden opportunity to go up 14-0 only minutes into the game.
Reinhardt could not capitalize on the fortune, however, as the offense lost two yards on two plays before losing possession by way of a fumble on the third play.
“I think, if we score on that possession, it may have been a different game,” Miller said. “We would have had some momentum and maybe played things a little differently. But the bottom line is we have to go back to the drawing board and find ways to get better.”
Marian (10-0) tied the game 7-all late in the first quarter when Darter connected with Johnny Williams on an 18-yard touchdown. Reinhardt’s Alex Hardy missed a 38-yard field goal midway through the second quarter before Marian’s Matt Plesac nailed a 20-yarder field with less than 2 minutes remaining in the first half to take a 10-7 lead at the half.
Reinhardt’s defense, which entered the game ranked No. 4 in the country, held Marian 21 points below its season average. Twice, the Eagles stopped the Knights on fourth down in the second half, once at the 20-yard line and once from 3.
Once again, injuries befell the Reinhardt defense as starting linebacker Sebastian LeGarra was sidelined early in the game with an injury, but the Eagles’ defense remained stiff, holding Marian scoreless in the third quarter.
Kenneth Lowery led Reinhardt with 16 tackles.
“It’s been a year where we’ve had a lot of kids step up and play really good football for us. A lot of guys that we were, really, kind of unsure of going into the year,” Miller said. “I think it really says something about our depth.”
Despite the defensive effort by Reinhardt, Marain’s defense was even more impressive.
The Eagles came into the game averaging 281 rushing yards per game, but they were held to 84 yards on 40 attempts Saturday. Quarterback Billy Hall was 1-for-5 passing for 5 yards, and Reinhardt was outgained 335-89.
“We just couldn’t create a big play on offense,” Miller said. “It was tough on us throwing the ball, and we just couldn’t bust one on the ground. They were putting eight guys in the box, and we couldn’t get through their line.”
The final blow was struck with less than 4 minutes to play in the game when Marian’s T.J. Reed hauled in a 32-yard touchdown pass from Darter. Reinhardt possessed the ball only once more, and after failing on a fourth-down attempt from its own 37-yard line, Marian ran out the remainder of the clock.
Miller said this year’s senior class, which finished with 57 wins, was one of the best in program history. Reinhardt overcame a number of injuries to key starters throughout the season, and Miller said the credit for keeping the team focused and prepared lied with those seniors.
“I really care about this team and these kids, and the way they played today, that’s all I can ask for,” Miller said. “We’re losing some really good football players, but I feel really good about what we have coming back and about our recruiting. I’m really excited about the future of the program.”