Co-Preseason Favorites Eureka, Aurora Set to Finally Collide

Photo courtesy of Albion Athletics.
Photo courtesy of Albion Athletics.
By Blake Baxter
AURORA, Ill. — It wouldn't be overselling it to call this the matchup of the year. 
Four weeks into the regular season, two weeks after its first loss and one week after the Eureka football team's bye week, the Red Devils are chomping at the bit for this one. 
On Saturday at 1 p.m., EC will kickoff at Aurora in a matchup between the two preseason co-favorites of the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference. 
What a way to kick off conference play in their second season in the NACC. 
"We're excited," EC coach Kurt Barth said. "It's a great opportunity for us to get back into conference play. I think that's the main thing. What everybody's got to understand is that the winner or loser of this game isn't out of anything.
"Football is probably the one sport where every game matters in terms of your place in the conference moving forward. Your postseason truly depends on it, there's no tournament at the end. There's no other qualifications to get you to the postseason. You have to win your conference, so every game is important." 
The Red Devils are heading into conference play with a 2-1 record after taking care of Knox and MacMurray in the first two weeks of the season and getting bested by Albion on the road in Week 3. 
Since then, the maroon and gold have used their time off to address the team's shortcomings and get prepared for the challenge that could go a long way toward deciding the NACC championship. 
"For us, it's a game that has to kind of wake you up," Barth said of the Albion loss. "We've certainly been productive and had our moments on both sides of the ball (this season). It's just a consistency thing for us, and that's what we've tried to address the last two weeks."
Led by quarterback Drew Barth, the EC offense racked up 531 yards of total offense and put up over 40 points for the third straight game. 
However, the Red Devils didn't sustain their running game as well as they did in the previous two weeks, the defense allowed 521 yards of total offense and 56 points and the special teams conceded 232 yards on seven kickoff returns. 
The team still managed to put itself in position to win after a strong start to the second half, but the mounting errors — some due to communication, others due to individual efforts — were evident.
"I think that was a great game for us to have right before coming in to conference play," Barth said. "It was a very good team that, as I told the guys yesterday, exposed some things that we needed to fix. That's what you want." 
As it stands, Eureka ranks second in the NACC (behind Aurora) and 10th nationally with 507.7 yards per game. The team is also second in the NACC behind Aurora in passing yards per game (333.7) and third in rushing yards (174). 
Barth is second in the league in both passing yards per game (333.7) and passing touchdowns (13). His top target, James Douglas III leads the league and is second in the nation with 166.3 receiving yards per game. He's also fifth in the nation in overall receiving yards (499) and second in the NACC with seven receiving touchdowns.
On the other side of the ball, Bryson Smith and Jon Jackson are tied for third in the NACC with 2 1/2 sacks apiece. 
Eight Red Devils have made at least 10 tackles, with Austin McCarty leading the way with 21, including tied for a team-high 3 1/5 for loss. 
Jackson and Amari Smith each have 15 total tackles, along with 3 1/2 and threw for loss, respectively. Nehemiah Butler has a team-high two interceptions, while Lane Short, Adrian Walker and Matt Sutton have all contributed a pick apiece.
Also a key factor in EC's success, kicker/punter Tanner Kuhne is 2-for-2 on field goals, 16-for-17 on extra point attempts and averaging 35.9 yards per punt.
Aurora will welcome Eureka to Vago Field for its homecoming weekend while hosting a 2-1 record. 
The same weekend, the Red Devils fell short at Albion, Aurora dropped its NACC-Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association Challenge Series matchup at Hope College in Holland, Mich.
The Spartans fell into a 20-0 hole in the first half, but nearly came back in a thrilling second-half comeback bid. They were within two points with 53 seconds left in the game after quarterback Gavin Zimbelman connected with Jacolby Maxwell on a 43-yard touchdown reception.
However, they were unable to recover the ensuing on-side kick and lost 34-32. So, like EC, the Spartans will be looking to get a bad taste of their mouth this weekend as well. 
They'll also be looking for a little payback from last year. 
In Eureka's first game as an associate member of the NACC, EC barely held off the Spartans at McKinzie Field.  
The Red Devils held a 10-point in the fourth quarter, but AU battled within 31-28 on Zimbelman's 72-yard throw to Connor Olson with 3:15 left in the game. A 38-yard run by two-time All-America running back Le'Anthony Reasnover pushed EC deep into AU territory on the next drive, and another Reasnover conversion on 3rd-and-2 allowed the Red Devils to kneel out the clock and win their first-ever NACC contest.
"(They were) strong group, and they've got a lot of those guys back," Barth said. "They were very athletic, played physical and we matched that with them.
"It's a game where we feel we've grown as a program (since then), and they've grown as a program." 
This year, with Zimbleman under center again, Aurora has the top passing offense in the nation (388.7 yards per game.Zimbleman also leads the nation in total offense (408.7 yards per game) is responsible for the second-most points of anyone in Division III (110) and has racked up the most passing touchdowns of anyone in the NACC (18).
Maxwell, meanwhile, is fourth in the nation in scoring (16.7), second in the league behind Douglas in receiving yards per game (144.3) and at the top of the conference in touchdown receptions. 
Defensively, the Spartans have allowed the third-fewest yards per game of any team in the league (369.3) and is fifth in points allowed (96). lake Martz is tied for third in the league in sacks with three, and Rob Stark has 2 1/2. 
The Spartans are 12-3-1 against the Red Devils all-time and 7-1 at home. They'll be looking to deny EC's first road win at Aurora since 1941.
After Eureka's shootout at Albion, Drew Barth was selected the NACC Offensive Player of the Week.
On Sept. 21, the Red Devils' senior quarterback racked up 459 total yards of offense and scored five touchdowns against the Britons. He threw for 410 yards and four touchdowns on 24-for-46 passing while running for 49 yards and another score. 
Barth's 459 total offensive yards is the fourth-most recorded by a Division III quarterback this season. It was only the eighth time in program history that a Eureka quarterback had eclipsed the 400-yard passing mark. 

After the game, Barth found himself fifth in EC's all-time passing yards list, surpassing Shaun Manning (2004-06) with 4,203 overall.

He also passed John Furmaniak (1992-95) for fifth place in completions (326), and is just one passing touchdown behind Blake Robles (2013-14) for fourth place with 39. 

It was also EC's third NACC Player of the Week honor of the 2019 season. Senior kicker/punter Tanner Kuhne was the Special Teams Player of the Week in Week 1 and Week 2. Eureka was the only team in the conference honored in each of the first three weeks.