BELTON, Texas- The victory celebration began before the game even kicked off.
As fans filed into Crusader stadium on this particular Saturday afternoon in February, the excitement was evident. The UMHB football team had not played a home game in 437 days, and the last time the Cru took the field in Belton, it ended in a 26-7 loss to Wisconsin-Whitewater.
The possibility of losing was not even in question this time around, as the Cru played a brand of inspired football, and sealed a 52-7 victory over Southwestern by halftime in the team’s first home game of an abbreviated spring schedule.
“The fans, they’re always loud, they get us going,” said wide receiver KJ Miller as UMHB fight song echoed across the stadium. “There’s nothing like the Cru.”
There certainly is not, as an estimated crowd of 2,140 was present, the majority wearing purple and gold. With the band constantly playing a rhythm and the fan base vocal throughout the contest, UMHB drove up the field with ease, though the rust from not playing a game in three weeks showed itself often throughout the contest.
“We played alright,” said Miller postgame. “We could’ve played a lot better. Coming off that break from that winter storm was tough for us. We’re going to come back next week and practice hard and get better.”
The Cru marched down the field on its opening possession, as the offense put into play the run-pass option, and quarterback Tommy Bowden hit Miller on consecutive passes. The Crusaders nearly had two touchdowns on the drive, with Bowden sprinting into the end zone after being forced from the pocket and Bowden finding Miller in the end zone, but both were called back due to penalties. Kicker Anthony Avila connected from 42 yards out on fourth down, giving the Cru the early 3-0 lead with 10:54 left in the first quarter.
After forcing a Southwestern three-and-out, the Cru found the end zone for the first time on the ensuing possession, as Miller slipped past a Southwestern defender. Bowden found him deep downfield, and though the pass was tipped, Miller pulled it down, igniting a loud cheer from the crowd, as he raced the final few yards into the end zone, putting UMHB up 10-0.
“Yeah, it was reflexes,” said Miller of the acrobatic touchdown catch. “I thought he was going to get it to me earlier and I was just trying to make a play out of it.”
The scoring did not stop there after the defense picked up back-to-back tackles for loss and forced Southwestern to punt with just over 4:30 left in the first quarter. On a critical third and six, Bowden found receiver Kadarius Daniels for the first down pickup, though the sophomore quarterback lost his grip on the ball the following play, and threw his first interception of the season, with Southwestern’s Jules Williams forcing the turnover.
But the UMHB defense made up for the empty possession, as Jayden Smith sprinted from his spot in the secondary to scoop up a botched Southwestern pitch and scored the Cru’s second touchdown of the game, to extend the lead to 17-0 with 1:20 left in the first. It followed up similar play in the season opener at Belhaven in which Glenn Thornton recovered a fumble in the end zone, scoring a touchdown for the Cru.
Early on in the second, Bowden again turned the ball over, this time fumbling it as the ball slipped from his hand. Southwestern took advantage of the mistake, as Austin Castilleja put the Pirates on the board with a 57 yard touchdown reception one play later, ending UMHB’s bid at an upset.
Bowden’s miscues would be corrected on the following possession, though, as he turned a near sack into a 59 yard scramble on the ground, breaking several tackles as he sprinted up the field, the crowd rising to its feet with each yard gained. He went down on the Southwestern 13 yard line, but backup quarterback Kyle King pushed the ball across the goal line two plays later, making the score 24-7 with 10:44 to go until halftime.
The two opponents remained locked in a standstill until halftime, with both defenses allowing limited amounts of yardage. With the score 24-7 at halftime, UMHB’s defense had allowed just one completion and a mere 88 yards of total offense in the entire first half.
The third quarter got underway, but the offenses remained stagnant as both sides struggled to move the sticks at a consistent pace. With under four minutes left in the third, Southwestern was called for pass interference, setting the Cru offense up with excellent field position on the opposing 19 yard line. A 17-yard touchdown pass from Bowden to Brenton Martin would follow two plays later, as UMHB seemed to seal the fate of the game. Bowden was flushed from the pocket, and threw the pass low, but Martin, in the corner of the end zone, got his hands under the ball.
Now holding a 31-7 lead, King entered back into the game, and ended up playing nearly the entire fourth quarter for the Cru, lofting a well-placed pass into the hands of Brandon Jordan who used his 6’6 frame to pull down the ball into the corner of the end zone. With just 47 seconds left, it was the Jordan connection again, this time catching a high pass from Ryan Redding, as the Cru made the score 52-7.
“I hate to throw that down there so late because the ballgame was over, but we need to work on that because that is a great weapon,” said head coach Pete Fredenburg of Jordan’s late touchdown reception. “He obviously gives us a big target.”
The Crusader defense did not notch the shutout but played well from start to finish, the only flaws coming on passes to the middle of UMHB’s 4-2 defense to receiver Jaylun Garcia, who lined up as a tight end on several plays. Southwestern quarterback Landry Gilpin took several big hits in the second half, and was actually directed off the field by the officials midway through the fourth as the Cru defense gave him little time to look downfield for an open receiver.
“I feel like we played good,” said Akeem Jackson, who led the defense with 13 total tackles. “We always prepare for these games. We were using our speed to get past [the Southwestern offensive line]. They weren’t blocking us fast enough. It felt good [having the home crowd behind us]. We got to show out for our crowd, for our fans. We were playing for them.”
Bowden led the team in rushing, with 112 yards, but was off-target when it came to passing, completing seven of 17 attempts for just 97 yards, and was sacked twice. King, who played less, but in some ways showed more, went seven-of-eight passing for 90 yards, and also scored twice on the ground. Fredenburg said postgame that there is likely to be a competition for the starting quarterback position this week in practice, which comes as a slight surprise considering Bowden was named ASC East Division Player of the Week following the Belhaven game. However, King proved to be the more consistent passer in Saturday’s win.
“Yeah I think so,” said Fredenburg when asked postgame if there might be a competition for the starting role in this upcoming week between King and Bowden. “Kyle looked pretty good. The sad thing is that Tommy is so good with his feet he’s just got to get confidence in throwing. Right now to me, it is just confidence. You’ve got to walk a fne line becuase he knows he’s being pushed.
“A lot,” added Fredenburg when asked about King’s recent improvement. “I think Kyle is incredible.”
UMHB showed a lot in its home opener, both good and bad. There are things that need to be fixed, but just like anything else, that will take time. For now, the Cru is 2-0 heading into next week’s road contest at East Texas Baptist in Marshall.
Top performers for UMHB:
Passing: Bowden, 7/17, 97 yards, 2 TD
Rushing: Bowden, 9 carries, 112 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Miller, 4 receptions, 68 yards, 1 TD