No. 2 UMHB, Crusader defense readies itself for ASC’s top passing offense on Saturday

Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru

BELTON, Texas- Last week, UMHB’s defense rose to the occasion, shutting out Belhaven, the ASC’s top rushing attack. 

But the task does not get any easier this week, with Howard Payne coming to Belton. Though the challenge might be similar, facing a talented offense, the formations UMHB is preparing for are completely different. Unlike last week, when they prepared for the hard-nosed running game of Belhaven, the Crusaders are gearing up for the ASC’s leading passing attack, as HPU has thrown for 2,689 yards this season. 

“What Howard Payne does is throw the ball extremely well,” UMHB head coach Pete Fredenburg said at Monday’s news conference. “They’ve got a host of good receivers, a quarterback that delivers the ball well, and they can also run the ball.” 

“Preparing for Belhaven and their rushing attack, with the quarterback doing most of the running, gave our guys an opportunity to move around in some different coverages that we feel like we’ll need as we move along.”

The performance against Belhaven was UMHB’s second shutout of the year, the first coming in a 52-0 road victory at Austin College. The Blazers attempted to keep the UMHB offense on the sidelines, holding the ball for 39 minutes, but were unable to score against a powerful Crusader defense. Safety Jefferson Fritz led the Cru with 10 total tackles and also tallied a pass breakup. 

“It really highlighted Jefferson Fritz,” Fredenburg noted. “He had 10 tackles and was all over the field.” 

UMHB’s offense started slow, but managed to score 19 second-half points in order to earn the 29-0 win. Ryan Redding made his first start of the season at quarterback in place of the injured Kyle King (turf toe), going 8-of-20 passing for 114 yards and added a 14-yard rushing touchdown. After the game, he told reporters that the start made him ready to “step into whatever role” presents itself next. King’s status remains unclear for Saturday’s contest against Howard Payne, meaning Redding may have the chance to get another start under his belt. 

“I wish,” Fredenburg said when asked on Monday if there is a timetable for King’s return. “I don’t’ know for sure. It’s a matter of him being able to withstand the pain, push off, and do the things necessary.” 

The head coach told reporters that he was pleased with Redding’s performance in a critical ASC matchup on Saturday, and felt that the senior quarterback would “learn some things” from his start.

“I was proud of it,” Fredenburg said of Redding’s performance. “[He] got in and did the things that we’ve been wanting him to do for years and I think he did ok. I think he’s going to learn from that game, and play with more confidence. I was proud of the job he did.”

Helping the offense gain field position on Saturday was returner KJ Miller. The senior returned six punts for 144 yards, his longest return going up the sideline for 45 yards. He now leads all NCAA divisions in yards per punt return, with 30.6 yards.

“[Special Teams Coordinator] Jack Johnson does a great job of coaching our punt return team,” Fredenburg said Monday. “All of those guys take a great deal of pride everytime KJ or Fritz has a big return. We haven’t used Aaron Sims and he is very capable as well. Having that group of guys go out and perform punt returns and give the kind of effort that they did on Saturday, it was awesome to watch. KJ is an incredible return man, and we just hope people keep kicking it to him.” 

In order to have those big return opportunities, the ball has to be punted within bounds, something opponents have purposely avoided this season due to the explosiveness of the UMHB return game. Belhaven did not follow suit on Saturday, however, as at least six of the eight punts were kicked almost directly to Miller. That was the result of a new “sideline return” added to the playbook by Johnson. 

“I think they were really trying to kick it to the boundary some, and we’ve usually been bringing it to the field, but Jack put in a sideline return and it worked great.” 

That was not the only special teams highlight for the Cru. For the second straight home game, Jefferson Fritz ran a fake punt for a first down gain. Though the gain was called back due to a holding call, it further demonstrated the athleticism of Fritz and the unique opportunity UMHB has with an all-american safety also serving as the regular punter. 

“The [fake punt] is a call, but he reads it, and he’ll either run it, kick it, or throw it,” Fredenburg said of the fake punt. “Obviously, he’s very talented and we want to make sure we utilize his abilities.”

Fritz headlines a defense that currently ranks fifth in the NCAA in yards allowed (1559), an average of 194.9 yards per game. Saturday’s matchup will be notable, considering it pits the ASC’s top passing offense against the league’s best passing defense in UMHB. The Crusader secondary will certainly need to be prepared, but Fredenburg is confident that the defense is coming together here in the final few weeks of the regular season. 

“I think our defense is really coming together,” Fredenburg said. “When we played Wisconsin-Whitewater, we felt like we needed to get our safeties closer to the football. Coach Harmon and his staff have done an incredible job of trying to get our safeties more involved in stopping the run. 

“They did a nice job Saturday, and accomplished that feat. I think they will continue to grow and get better as we get ready to defend a team that spreads the field and throws it everywhere. We feel like we’ve packaged ourselves to where we can move those guys around, do a lot of things with them, and do it well.” 

UMHB faces Howard Payne on Nov. 6 in a noon kickoff at Crusader Stadium. The Cru is just one of four college teams in the state of Texas that remains undefeated, at 8-0, and retained its No. 2 national ranking in this week’s D3football.com and American Football Coaches Association Top 25 polls.

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 rileyzayas@truetothecru.com.

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