By Blake Baxter
EUREKA — It's been almost five weeks since the Eureka football team's last game under the lights of McKinzie Field.
Since then, a lot has happened.
There have been shootouts, injuries, recoveries, setbacks and comebacks, all playing a part in building the Eureka team that will take the turf for the Red Devils' 41st known homecoming game in program history.
The Red Devils (3-2, 1-1) will host Concordia Chicago (3-2, 1-1) on Saturday at 4 p.m.
"We have to stay on track," EC coach Kurt Barth said. "It's exciting to be able to play at McKinzie Field. We haven't been at home since Sept. 14, so that will hopefully add a little boost."
With last year's 54-35 victory over Wisconsin Lutheran, the Red Devils improved to 20-20 in homecoming games. They are gunning for their fourth straight homecoming victory and their eighth in their last nine tries.
EC's longest homecoming win streak occurred when the Red Devils won five straight from 1991 through 1995. In 10 homecoming games under Barth, Eureka is 7-3.
This time around, the Red Devils are heading home coming off a 26-20 overtime victory on the road over Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference foe Wisconsin Lutheran.
It was the first game of 2019 to break a completely new mold for the Red Devils.
On a windy afternoon up north, the maroon and gold heavily leaned on their running game far more than their passing game. Recovering nicely from an early-season injury, Joe Hughes carried the load, racking up a career-high 180 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 38 carries while the Red Devils possessed the ball for a whopping 45 minutes.
The game was neck-and-neck from the first series, and Barth said that it had a different feeling from the opening kickoff to Hughes' game-winning touchdown in overtime.
"This was the first time in a while that we've seen excitement and engagement from the sideline throughout everybody," he said. "It was one of those games from the opening kickoff all the way through, our sideline had energy to it.
"Defense was getting stops, our guys were pumped up when the defense was coming off the field. Offense was moving the ball. We weren't putting up points early on, but we were extending drives and doing some of the things we needed to."
Barth also believed it was the team's best defensive game of the year. The Red Devils allowed a season-low 251 total yards of offense, including only 38 rushing yards and 10 completions on 30 pass attempts. EC conceded three touchdowns, but on two of three, the coverage was there. The team consistently pressured the quarterback, smothered the running game and showed improved tackling
The Red Devils were battered by injuries – more than Barth can ever remember having in a season – but that didn't stop them from progressing.
"For guys to be able to continue to step up, step in and contribute, that says a lot for us," Barth said. "Our depth has been tested, really from Week 1, and our guys have responded."
Saturday, Barth said, was the first time that the Red Devils played their brand of team defense.
Joe Hughes made 10 carries for 67 yards in EC's season opener against Knox before an unfortunate twist of fate put him on the sidelines for a few weeks.
He returned to the field in EC's lopsided loss at Aurora two weeks ago, making 12 carries for 41 yards, but last week was the first time he was able to settle in and show why he was the Red Devils' top running back in a talented backfield heading into the season.
"Joe is a back that's capable of making you miss out on space, but I think he prefers running you over," Barth said, "and as you saw the game go on last week, I think he wore people out, just with his constant pounding the ball."
The Red Devils also got a few key carries from Grant Jochums.
"Grant is a very similar back," Barth added. "He came in last week and maybe didn't have the lanes, but you see him finishing runs, and that wears on a defense all through."
The breakout performance from the running game was also a credit to EC's young offensive line of Martin LeCesne, Tim Wright, Corbin Heiken, Cody Maxwell and Trever Neal. Barth says sustaining those long drives was a good sign of the unit's progress.
ABOUT CONCORDIA CHICAGO
Through five games, Concordia Chicago has largely kept pace with Eureka.
The Cougars are 3-2 on the season and 1-1 in the NACC. Like the Red Devils, they went 2-1 in non-conference play, and suffered a sizable loss to Aurora in league play.
Last week, Concordia Chicago's running back Lance Moise became the program's all-time rushing leader the first player in school history to eclipse 4,000 rushing yards in a 63-27 loss to the Spartans.
Moise finished the day with 205 rushing yards and two scores on 28 carries. It was the sixth time in his career that he rushed for 200 yards or more.
The senior is currently second in the conference and 11th in the nation with 129.2 rushing yards per game. He also leads the conference with 13 touchdowns and is tied for the first in the nation in scoring with 15.6 points per game.
To Barth, Moise is one of the best running backs who's not all that unlike departed two-time All-American Red Devil Le'Anthony Reasnover.
"I think it's one of the best backs we'll see in a long time," he said. "It's going to be a big challenge for us. We've got to be able to rise up, tackle well and make plays defensively when we have the opportunities to."
However, Barth also knows from experience that when everyone focuses on one guy, it makes them susceptible to getting exploited by others.
The Cougars have two dependable quarterbacks who will split time in Jaxon Aubry (34-for-61 for 429 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions) and Griffin Beaudette (23-for-35 for 250 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions), as well as a sneaky-good receiving corps.
On the other side of the ball, the Cougars are third in the league in fewest yards allowed per game at 359.6. After committing five turnovers in the past two weeks, Barth knows that his squad has to do a better job taking care of the ball and show its 'true self."
"They're an aggressive group," Barth said. "They're going to come after us, and I think they'll probably feel they have the upper hand on us.
"We're going to have to play well to get the win, but they're going to have to do the same."
TANNER KUHNE SPECIAL FOR RED DEVILS AGAIN
For the third time this season, Tanner Kuhne was named the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference Special Teams Player of the Week.
The senior made two critical field goals in the Red Devils' 26-20 overtime victory over NACC foe Wisconsin Lutheran on Saturday, improving to 4-for-4 on the season.
The first was 25-yarder that put EC on the board on its first possession of the game. The second was a 36-yarder that gave the maroon and gold a five-point cushion toward the end of the third quarter.
He also rushed seven yards for a first down on a fake punt attempt at the end of the first quarter, racked up 222 yards on five kickoffs and recorded three touchbacks.
This was the ninth Special Teams Player of the Week award of Kuhne's career. In 2017, he snagged three Upper Midwest Athletic Conference awards, and last season, he earned three more during Eureka's first season in the NACC.