Image courtesy of the UMHB Athletics Department
ABILENE, Texas- The UMHB defense had its ups and downs in the abbreviated spring football season, but when needed the most, the unit rose to the challenge.
The Cru defense forced two empty possessions late in the fourth quarter, as UMHB captured its 16th ASC Championship title with a 23-15 victory over Hardin-Simmons on Saturday afternoon.
“You know what really is cool, is lifting up the championship trophy at Hardin-Simmons,” UMHB head coach Pete Fredenburg said postgame. “We’re such big rivals, in recruiting and everything. It was pretty special.”
HSU had two chances to close the eight-point gap in the fourth quarter, but the Cru eliminated any possibility of the Cowboys finding the end zone with two key stops.
After UMHB quarterback Kyle King threw his first interception of the season with 5:23 remaining, the Cru’s Drake Johnson returned the favor, picking off HSU quarterback Kyle Jones on the first pass of the Cowboys’ following possession.
The Cru failed to completely run down the clock after Johnson’s interception, and kicker Brandon Cunningham’s 20 yard field goal attempt was blocked, giving the Cowboys one final chance to reach the end zone. But Jones was inaccurate, under pressure on all four of his passing attempts on the short-lived drive. UMHB linebacker Jacob Mueller had a huge hit as the ball reached the intended receiver’s hands on first and 25, and forced a crucial incompletion.
Mueller’s hit resembled one earlier in the quarter from safety Jefferson Fritz. The only difference was in the way the hit was called. Mueller was applauded for a phenomenal pass breakup, while Fritz was cited for targeting, and ejected from the game with 8:52 on the clock. Much debate ensued as to whether the officials made the correct call, but one thing was evident in the hard-hitting from Mueller, Fritz and the entire Cru defense. There was no backing down from the challenge. The contest was sure to be hard-nosed, with the most physical team earning the win.
While defense provided a consistent storyline throughout the low-scoring contest, UMHB’s offense came out firing in the first quarter. The 13-point lead the Cru built in the first half was critical in maintaining the advantage, as King, in the second start of his collegiate career, raced into the end zone on a three-yard scramble to put UMHB up 7-0 at the 8:21 mark in the opening quarter.
“I think our offensive coaches did a fantastic job,” Fredenburg said. “[HSU] really surprised us with a bear front last year that caused us some problems. [Our coaches] really attacked it well this year. [HSU] was back and forth with a four and three man front, but I think our offense did a great job.”
Despite playing perhaps the biggest game of his three-year college career, King was poised from the start, and appeared confident in the pocket.
He led the Cru downfield on a clock-draining drive late in the first quarter on UMHB’s second possession, as the Cru used 13 plays to go 65 yards downfield and set up a 22 yard field goal from Cunningham with 14:18 in the second quarter. Cunningham shanked his second attempted field goal of the quarter on the Cru’s ensuing possession, but redeemed himself just before halftime, knocking a 25 yard attempt through the uprights with 1:25 to play, giving UMHB a 13-0 lead at the half.
HSU refused to back down without a fight, though, as the Cowboys jogged onto the field for the second half with a clear mission in mind. After falling 15-14 in the last meeting in 2019, the Cowboys were seeking revenge, and it was evident as they marched into the end zone to open the third quarter.
HSU needed just five plays to score and cut the deficit to 13-7 with 10:44 in the third, as Gatlin Martin took a short toss from Jones, and sprinted to the right side on a sweep, outrunning the UMHB defense.
The Cru responded with a solid drive of its own, as King made two spectacular passes. On a critical third and seven from the UMHB 27 yard line, King rolled to his left, and found receiver Kadarius Daniels for a 13 yard gain. Daniels, playing the final game of his college career, reeled in the pass, touching down just before the sideline, much to HSU’s dismay. Two plays later, the ball was in Daniels’ hands again, this time off a lateral. King completed a long pass to receiver Brenton Martin into HSU territory, and Martin, after being surrounded by Cowboy defenders, pitched it to Daniels, who added several additional yards for a 36 yard gain. Cunningham was called on once again on fourth down, and connected from 37 yards out to extend the UMHB lead to 16-7.
UMHB scored again in third, reaching the end zone on a seven-yard touchdown reception from Martin to tight end Gary Ruckman. An ingenious trick play, King pitched the ball to Martin, who was running behind him, and Martin rolled out, found Ruckman and fired a solid spiral to the tight end. Not surprisingly, it was Martin’s first passing touchdown as a Crusader and UMHB’s only passing touchdown of the day.
HSU countered with a touchdown of its own with 7:52 in the fourth, as receiver Myles Featherston raced into the end zone on a four-yard run. Running back Marc Reed caught a pass from Jones for the two-point conversation, making it a one-possession game midway through the final quarter.
Though the Cru offense struggled against a motivated HSU defense on its next two possessions, the defense took center stage, and sealed its 22nd victory over the Cowboys.
Offensively, the running game was what paved the way to victory, considering King was limited to 8/15 passing for 150 yards. Running back Kenneth Cormier Jr. burst onto the scene, leading the team with 145 rushing yards on 26 carries. Interestingly, Cormier Jr. had only been taking reps at running back for the last three weeks, but stepped up when his number was called.
“He is special,” Fredenburg said postgame of Cormier Jr.’s play. “He was a linebacker about a month ago, he was making progress there, but we’re tickled that he’s helped us.”
Johnson used his speed to cause havoc both on defense and special teams, as the sophomore blocked a punt to set up the Cru’s first touchdown, and later tallied UMHB’s only interception of the game. Mueller finished the contest atop the stat totals for the second straight game, with a team-best 12 total tackles, 10 solo, one sack and four tackles for loss. Jayden Smith also posted a notable performance, with four tackles and a forced fumble.
It seems that a better storyline could not have been written, as the Cru traveled to Abilene, defeated a bitter rival seeking revenge, and simultaneously captured at least a share of the ASC title for the 13th consecutive season.
Yet, as many of the players noted postgame, the win concluded the spring season, but it did not wrap up 2021. Many eyes are on the fall, and the Stagg Bowl nine months away. A conference title is always worthy of applause, but the Cru is far from finished in 2021. And it seems fitting that UMHB’s title did not come without a etching its name into the record books once again, as the Cru won the ASC’s first ever conference championship game.
Until kickoff this coming fall, the Cru head back to Belton as the team to beat in the ASC, unstoppable, unbeatable in this spring season, and certainly unshakable through adversity.