Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru
BELTON, Texas- Entering the 2021 season, it was thought by many that UMHB football’s September portion of the schedule would feature its toughest two tests of the regular season in ETBU and Hardin-Simmons. And that partially proved to be the case, with the Cru narrowly defeating Hardin-Simmons behind a late touchdown and game-sealing interception.
But the final two home games of the conference schedule are shaping up to be challenges in themselves for the Crusaders, who are 7-0 on the year.
In the upcoming two-week span, UMHB is set to face Belhaven, 5-2, and Howard Payne, 6-1. Both squads have had their high points during the first seven weeks of the season, and UMHB head coach Pete Fredenburg is expecting nothing less than the best from Belhaven this Saturday. The Blazers are coming off a 24-10 road win against Howard Payne, previously undefeated.
“There’s obviously more significance with this,” Fredenburg told reporters Monday when asked about the upcoming contest against Belhaven. “A big win over Howard Payne gets your attention. They’re very improved and will give us a challenge. I think that our players will respond to that.”
Fredenburg was spot-on with his analysis. The Blazers are far from the team UMHB shut out 44-0 to begin the 2020-21 spring season, and have improved statistically each week. The offense leads the conference in rushing, with an average of 267.1 yards per game. UMHB ranks second in that category.
Defensively, Belhaven is second in the ASC in passing defense and fourth in rushing defense. A part of that is due to the three-man defensive line, which boasts three fifth-year seniors, all over 6’2 in height.
Battling in the trenches has been key for the Blazers on both sides of the ball this season. The offensive line has paved the way for their high-octane rushing attack, and Fredenburg was asked if this will be the largest and most talented line his team has ever faced. He noted that while Belhaven is much improved, the Crusader defensive front has plenty of experience against strong and tall linemen.
“The largest ones we always prepare for are Wisconsin-Whitewater’s [offensive line],” Fredenburg said. “They always have huge players and great offensive linemen. We’ve faced teams that are bigger, but I know that this will be a big game for both teams.”
The Cru will look to maximize its opportunities on special teams, where the team excelled against Sul Ross State in a 72-14 victory last Saturday. KJ Miller tallied two punt returns for a total of 123 yards, including an 88-yard return that resulted in a touchdown. Jefferson Fritz added a 35-yard return later in the contest, and the Crusaders were constantly putting pressure on SRSU’s punting unit.
“It was one of the most spectacular [returns],” Fredenburg said of Miller’s 88-yard score, which gave the Cru a 14-7 lead. “It took a great athlete to stay inbounds. Obviously the blocking was set to go to the far side of the field, [but] he cut inside and picked up blockers.
“KJ is a great player and a great athlete,” Fredenburg continued. “He’s one of our outstanding leaders. He’s getting more and more involved with our offense. I don’t think you can give him the ball enough.”
Miller was one of eight receivers to record a reception in Saturday’s dominant victory. The offense caught fire in the second quarter, scoring 31, and never looked back in the second half. Though the Crusaders have outscored opponents 383-68, Fredenburg is still seeking improvement from the offense, especially as the coaching staff looks to develop depth. After all, the competition level is set to elevate over the next two games, as well as in the playoffs.
“It’s a fine line that you walk as a coach, because winning 72-14 is a big win,” Fredenburg said. “However, our guys feel like they want to continue to get better. There are guys that want to get on the field and play, and sometimes they don’t execute as well as they should.
“Just like when Ryan [Redding] came in and we had three or four movement penalties, which was disheartening, because his cadence is a little different than Kyle’s. But we’ve got to fix those things. And we can’t live with 16 penalties.”
Penalties will need to be avoided on Saturday. The Blazers not only boast strong offensive and defensive lines, but might be the best running team the Crusaders have faced in 2021.
“I think they’re now playing with a lot of confidence after beating Howard Payne like they did,” Fredenburg told the local media. “I think every time we play anybody, we know we’re going to get that opponent’s best game.”
With three games left in the regular season, and ranked No. 2 in the both the AFCA and D3football.com Top 25 polls, UMHB appears as a lock in the postseason. But Fredenburg emphasized the importance of not looking too far ahead, considering the Crusaders’ next two opponents.
“We want everybody to get an opportunity to get on the field, so our coaches can evaluate who we can count on long-range,” Fredenburg said. “But the reality is that we’ve got to make sure we get there. We understand the incredible effort that Belhaven will give us. We’ll get a big effort from Howard Payne and McMurry. ‘We’, our football team, needs to focus on ‘us’, and continue to strive to be the best football team we can be.”
Riley Zayas serves as the managing editor of True To The Cru. He has worked in sports journalism since 2016 and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.