Top-ranked UMHB football emerges from ETBU win with room to improve, talent on defense

BELTON, Texas- UMHB raced out to a 17-0 lead by the end of the first quarter in Saturday’s victory over ETBU, and extended that to 24-0 by the end of the first half. But it was what the box score did not say that appeared most evident. Head coach Pete Fredenburg, though encouraged by the win, was not naive to the fact that improvements need to be made, especially with Hardin-Simmons coming to Belton on Sept. 25.

“Obviously anytime you win you’re excited and happy but the reality is that we’ve got to play a whole lot better than we did,” Fredenburg told the media on Monday. “I think our guys realize that. I expect to make a lot of improvements.”

Of those areas to improve, Fredenburg specifically noted the Crusaders’ offensive play as an area for growth.

“Offensively, I think we need to exploit some of our receiving corps a little more,” Fredenburg said. “We like to say we take what the defense gives us, but I think we got a little conservative in the latter part of the game and felt like we didn’t want to make a mistake. Obviously, that’s a good thing, for coaches to make sure we win the football game, but I do think we still need to open up our offense.”

Those improvements will be applied this Saturday in the Cru’s first road game of the year at Southwestern, a team that boasts a dynamic offense led by second-year quarterback Landry Gilpin.

“It will be interesting,” Fredenburg said of going on the road. “It’s just down the road, but we’re playing at 7 o’clock and obviously that puts everything a little different. We look forward to the challenge and again, the thing that’s really important for us this weekend is that we need to take care of our team. We need to get better as a football team.

“The win over East Texas Baptist was significant and we’re proud of the fact that we won the ballgame but the reality is that our guys expect to and will play a lot better than they did Saturday.”

The performance on Saturday, while far from perfect, proved to be an improvement in itself from UMHB’s last meeting with the Tigers; a 30-28 victory in the spring that was decided on the game’s final drive.

“I thought we had an excellent week of preparation for East Texas Baptist and our players knew, after last year, that it was really important that we do a nice job of playing defense,” Fredenburg said.

The defense made an impact early, with defensive end Caleb Johnson tallying an 18-yard tackle for loss on ETBU’s first play from scrimmage. The Tigers, with a high-octane passing offense, were held to just 103 yards through the air.

Johnson, a fifth-year senior, had “a great preseason” according to Fredenburg, and has started at defensive end in each of the Cru’s first two games. He dealt with Covid in the spring, limiting him to three games, but his work ethic allowed him to make improvements in his skill set during the summer. 

“You know he’s always been a talented youngster, but this year for some reason [he’s been exceptional], I think because he suffered so much in the spring,” Fredenburg said of Johnson. “He had Covid, he had a hard time getting over it, and he never really came back as healthy as he had been. I think the reality of missing [part of the spring] and the opportunity for his final year, he really worked hard through the summer.”

One loss when it comes to personnel on the defense is defensive back Jackson Sennie, who left Saturday’s game with an elbow injury, as was confirmed by a UMHB spokesperson. 

“He is at the doctor and they have a concern about the damage, is it operable or can he just heal,” Fredenburg said of Sennie’s injury. “We’re running some tests to see. Obviously it’s an injury of significance. He’ll be out for a while. He thinks he can come back in a few weeks. We hope he can.”

The Crusader defense will be especially important against Southwestern on Saturday, as Gilpin is a dual-threat quarterback who threw for 179 yards in last week’s 34-27 win over Belhaven, while running for 118 more.

“We’ll work up a plan,” Fredenburg told reporters. “Right now they spread the field and give him a lot of options. He’s a gifted athlete who can throw and run and [head coach] Joe [Austin] does a great job of utilizing a quarterback who has those abilities, so it’ll be a difficult task for us to put together a game plan to contain him but we’re sure going to try.”

In UMHB’s 52-7 win over Southwestern in the spring, Gilpin was held to just 4-of-13 passing for 126 yards and a mere seven yards rushing.

Nationally, the Cru is ranked No. 1 in the country by D3football.com for the second consecutive week, receiving 13 first-place votes. While UMHB has defended that ranking with two stellar wins to open the year, the Crusaders remain grounded.

“I think the reality is that the situation we have with our program, we feel like we have a chance to do really well every year,” Fredenburg said Monday. “That’s what we’ve taken great pride in building, and maintaining, and trying to get as much as we can out of our players and coaches to push ourselves to reach the pinnacle of Div. III football.”

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