SMYRNA – The last time the Smyrna defense saw Colby Reeder, it didn’t go very well.
Salesianum’s 6-foot-4, 225-pound battering ram of a tailback ran over, through and around the Eagles 34 times for 408 yards and seven touchdowns. The Smyrna offense was spectacular, scoring 56 points, but it didn’t matter much because Sallies scored 76 in an epic Sept. 25 matchup at Baynard Stadium.
Ten weeks later, both teams have made their way to the DIAA Division I championship game at 1 p.m. Saturday at Delaware Stadium. A rematch like this leads to a hundred questions, but the first one is this:
Can Smyrna’s defense stop – or at least contain – Reeder? If the Eagles can’t keep him from running wild, nothing else will matter. But Smyrna’s D has improved throughout the season, and both head coaches expect a better showing this time.
“We can go back and point out the things that we did wrong,” Smyrna coach Mike Judy said. “It was little, tiny details, which is what football comes down to. Missed steps, not taking proper leverage, taking on somebody with the wrong shoulder. Those little things mean so much, and we’ve been better at them ever since.”
William Penn’s ground game had success early against the Eagles, rushing 26 times for 154 yards in the first half in last week’s semifinals. Smyrna fell into an early 13-0 hole, but the defense stiffened and held the Colonials to 17 carries for 18 yards in the second half as the Eagles roared to a 30-13 victory. Smyrna held Titus Nelson, William Penn’s 250-pound tailback, to 66 yards on 18 carries.
“Smyrna is a very, very good defensive team,” Sallies coach Bill DiNardo said. “For them to hold William Penn, who is a really good offense, to 13 points and zero in the second half, they’re doing good things.”
Those good things come at every level of the defense, highlighted by senior lineman Jeff Campbell (34 tackles, 2½ sacks), junior linebacker Eli Hutchinson (team-leading 102 tackles, including 17 for loss) and senior defensive back Rodney Ruff (56 tackles, seven for loss).
All three know it’s going to be all hands on deck against Reeder.
“Playing soft isn’t going to get you anywhere,” Ruff said. “I think we’ve got a good feel for him now. Just coming out playing fast and strong, that’s what we have to do. What we did last time isn’t going to work.”
Since losing to the Sals, the Eagles (11-1) have given up just 119 points (13.2 per game) over their last nine games. But Reeder (1,916 yards, 32 TDs for the 10-1 Sals) presents a unique challenge. Smyrna will have to tackle him at least 30 times.
“He’s certainly been our go-to guy,” DiNardo said. “He’s a guy that wants the ball. He does not want to come out, he doesn’t want a rest, and he doesn’t want somebody else carrying the ball. He wants to carry it.”
The Eagles could see even more Reeder on Saturday, since two-year starting quarterback Garrett Cannon suffered a season-ending injury in Sallies’ semifinal win over Middletown. Sophomore Zach Gwynn will be making his first career start in the championship game, so the Sals may be a little more hesitant to pass.
“Now he’s the main focus since their quarterback got hurt,” Ruff said. “Everything is going to be around Colby Reeder. I think if we slow him down, we can win the game.”
The first line of defense is the 6-3, 290-pound Campbell, who will work to occupy Sallies’ beefy linemen and keep Smyrna’s linebackers free to chase the ball.
“As long as we play assignment football and fundamentally tough and sound, and we’re not out there being soft, we can handle it,” Campbell said. “We’ve gotten better over the year, and we’ve had adversity, and we’ve overcome. I think this will just be another step on the road.”
Hutchinson knows it will take a total team effort to frustrate Reeder.
“We’ve got to get our defensive linemen to occupy blocks, and we’ve got to get to the ball and get to him and tackle low,” the linebacker said. “It’s as simple as that.
“We’ve got to get 11 men on the ball. That’s what our coaches have been telling us to do, and that’s what we’re going to practice this whole week.”
The Sals have other weapons in fullbacks Zach Jarome and Peyton Mullin and receivers Jeremy Ryan and Griffin Salvo, who can be especially dangerous on reverses. But most of the time, Smyrna will know who it has to stop.
And the Eagles are going to pull out all the stops to make it happen.
“Colby Reeder is going to be hard to slow down,” Judy said. “We’re going to do our best. We’re going to throw all types of things at him, get him to slow down and make him think a little bit.”
Contact Brad Myers at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ