Mid-South Conference games are often a nightmare for defensive coordinators who often find themselves in basketball-like shootout scores.
Cumberland's season-opening 14-6 win over visiting Cincinnati Christian was either an anomaly or an identity for the Phoenix, who overcame some offensive glitches with a blocked kick and a game-saving interception before an estimated crowd of 2,500 gathered on a hot afternoon at Nokes-Lasater Field.
"Our defense played lights out," second-year Cumberland coach Tim Mathis said. "I couldn't ask for anything more. They got after it. Our punt team put them in a bad situation and they bowed their neck and we got the ball back."
Cincinnati Christian, coming off a season-opening victory following a winless 2018, got a blocked punt, recovery and 15-yard return to the Cumberland 20-yard line from De'Havio Allen following a low snap to punter Helman Garcia.
But CU safety Tony Bennett intercepted Derrick Taylor's pass in the left corner of the end zone and the Phoenix ran the final 4:19 off the clock. The game actually started with both offenses driving the length of the field for scores. Telvin Rucker capped a nine-play, 67-yard march with a 3-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 CU lead.
Cincinnati Christian answered with 12 plays, with Adam Sanders going the final 10 with a broken tackle and a touchdown. But Jimmy Turner came from the outside and blocked the extra point, preserving a 7-6 CU lead.
Rucker got his second score on a 1-yard run 5:11 before halftime to wrap up an 11-play, 76-yard drive.
Cumberland ran for 253 yards and did not turn the ball over. But freshman Robbie Brewington of Mt. Juliet, who hit both extra points, hit the left upright on a 29-yard field-goal attempt in the third quarter. The Phoenix also hurt themselves with eight penalties for 72 yards.
"For some of our defensive kids, it was their first game, ever," Mathis said of Cincinnati Christian's opening drive. "You get those little first jitters down. You missed a few assignments that first drive. Credit to Coach (defensive coordinator Taurean) Smith, we corrected those on the sideline in a hurry and they weren't much of a threat after that.
"We had a lot of opportunities. We dropped two or three balls that could've put the game away on some plays over the top. We dropped one in the end zone. We've got to polish some blocking assignments. But on the whole, offensively, when your fullback/B-Back position rushes for over 200 yards, you had a good football day. We got to correct some of the penalties and missed assignments. It was one of those games, it feels like you blew them away, but it was so close. Now we've got that game under our belt, let's correct it and get better.
"Our kids played hard. That was the biggest thing that I take away… We didn't have any pre-snap or post-snap penalties, which is a good thing. Those things should never happen. A lot of the penalties were effort stuff that you got to know better than to do some of those things."
Cumberland will travel to the Cincinnati surburb of Crestview Hills, Ky., this coming Saturday to take on new MSC Bluegrass Division member Thomas More at 12:30 p.m. CDT.