Above photo of Aphonso Thomas by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru
BELTON, Texas- Facing a fourth and one late in the final quarter, holding a 6-3 lead, UMHB head coach Pete Fredenburg had a decision to make. Take the conservative approach and send out the field goal unit, or leave the offense on the field and go for a game-sealing first down.
Fredenburg chose the latter. And his offense delivered.
Running back Aphonso Thomas, who finished with a game-leading 118 rushing yards, found a hole in the offensive line, sprinted into the open field, and straight into the end zone, putting the game out of reach with 2:05 to play.
The 17-yard touchdown, which gave UMHB a 13-3 victory, came on the heels of an offsides penalty against Trinity on Brandon Cunningham’s second field goal attempt. It moved the ball five yards up, giving UMHB a legitimate chance to convert the first down and end the game, rather than lead by six with Cunningham’s field goal and put the ball in Trinity’s hands with just over two minutes to play.
“When they gave us the opportunity on fourth and one, I felt like if we could get a touchdown, that would end the ballgame,” Fredenburg noted.
Thomas had a fourth quarter to remember, tallying 70 rushing yards over the final 15 minutes to help the Cru secure a spot in the second-round of the D-III football playoffs, hosting Birmingham-Southern on Nov. 27.
“As an offense, we just wanted to keep trying to wear them down as best as we could,” Thomas said postgame. “Like Coach [Fredenburg] said, they were very well-coached and they were a very good team, so we knew it was going to be a physical game. We tried our best to outlast them.”
The Crusaders certainly accomplished that objective. Facing such a tough opponent in the first round of the playoffs is something Fredenburg believes will positively impact his squad moving forward in the postseason, as Trinity kept the pressure on, trailing by just three points for all but two minutes.
“I think this is going to be an incredible win, but it’s also going to be an incredible, eye-opening experience,” Fredenburg said postgame. “The level of play that we’re fixing to encounter has risen across the board. We know what Trinity did was an incredible effort. They played tremendously hard and that will happen throughout the rest of our season.”
Trinity did not lose its defensive intensity at any point in the game, all the way up to the contest’s final play. Urban called Trinity’s final timeout just before Thomas broke free and scored, rallying his defensive front, expecting the ball to stay on the ground.
“I wasn’t going to take a timeout home with me,” Urban siad. “ I wanted to make sure my guys were fresh, and [UMHB] just got the better of us on that last play.”
Entering the contest, with Trinity ranked as the nation’s No. 2 defense and UMHB as the No. 8 defense, it was expected that offensive yardage would not come easily.
That is exactly how it unfolded, as the Tigers reached the red zone just once and the Crusaders marched inside the Trinity 20-yard line only three times. It was also the lowest point total of the season for both teams, as the defenses limited offensive production both on the ground and through the air.
“Playoff time is where it really counts,” UMHB linbacker Akeem Jackson, who had a team-high 11 tackles, said postgame. “I try to play like that throughout the season, but they were giving me opportunities, so I was just taking them.”
UMHB quarterback Kyle King, who was limited to a 10-of-22 passing day, was complimentary of the Trinity defense. Ultimately, the low production day from the offense was not as much a flaw in the Crusaders’ attack, but rather a testament to the athleticism and ability of the Tiger defense.
“That was a really good defense we played against,” King told reporters. “They had a great gameplan, and their front six was really good. I don’t think we underestimated these guys. They have the No. 2 defense in the country. We called the play that we thought would win the game. It’s survive and advance at this point.”
UMHB’s first offensive possession was ended when Trinity cornerback Trey King intercepted a pass from King with 10:26 in the first quarter, and the Tigers promptly marched down the field, completing short passes in the middle of the field. The nine-play, 59-yard drive was capped on a 28 yard field goal from Blake Lin, giving Trinity an early 3-0 advantage. But what challenged the Tigers was a lack of running. Leading rusher Winston Hutchinson was held to just 28 yards on the ground, and as a team, Trinity had just 22 total rushing yards.
“We struggled running the ball today,” Trinity quarterback Tucker Horn said postgame. “Things are really tough when it’s hard to run the ball.”
Trinity head coach Jerheme Urban shared a similar sentiment when it came to the rushing attack against UMHB’s powerful defensive front, which limited the Tigers to 212 total yards of offense.
“They were as advertised,” Urban said of the Crusader defense. “We knew we’d have to run the ball in a light box and we were able to get a couple of good runs, but we weren’t able to sustain it. It’s easy to start moving the ball and getting into a rhythm when it’s second-and-six, versus second-and-eight or second-and-nine.”
UMHB finally found its offensive rhythm in the second quarter, evening the score with 59 seconds left on a 42-yard field goal from kicker Anthony Avila. Highlighting that scoring drive was the hard-nosed running of Kenneth Cormier, who took four straight handoffs for a total of 23 yards, putting the Crusaders within field goal range.
Avila had a second 42-yard attempt on the final play of the first half, but missed it to the left, no doubt partially due to the winds sweeping across Crusader Stadium. It left the score knotted at three apiece, and in the second half, the defenses picked up where they had left off. Trinity forced a three-and-out on UMHB’s first possession of the third quarter, and the Crusaders then returned the favor, forcing the Tigers to punt after an incomplete pass on third down.
The Cru broke through for its first lead of the game at the 4:09 mark of the third quarter, this time sending Cunningham out to attempt a 33-yard field goal, which he converted on. It was enough to seal the win, as the Crusaders held Trinity’s offense at bay for the remainder of the second half, blitzing more often than usual.
“[Tucker Horn] is such a magnificent player,” Fredenburg said of Trinity’s quarterback. “I really wanted to see how he was going to deal with some pressure. We actually blitzed him some, and then we would show blitz and play coverage.
“It worked out really well. [Defensive Coordinator] Larry Harmon and his defensive staff did an incredible job of putting that together. I think the defensive effort today was awesome.”
That defensive effort will be needed once again next week against Birmingham-Southern. The Panthers defeated Huntington 24-14 on Saturday, as quarterback Landon Cotney threw for 179 yards.
“We’ve watched them on film and they’re good,” Fredenburg said of Birmingham-Southern. “They beat Huntington really badly the first time, and then [won today]. We understand the effort and the level that people are going to perform at. It’s going to be a huge game.”
Though the Cru extended its season, and had a respectable showing against a defense as accomplished as Trinity’s, King noted that there is plenty of room to improve offensively prior to next week. The inability to move the ball downfield, King added, does not bring out a feeling of frustration as much a feeling of letting their defensive counterparts down. UMHB converted on just six of 16 third-down attempts and was unable to turn two interceptions into points.
“It’s not so much frustrating as you feel like you’re letting your defense down,” King said. “It’s frustrating, yes, but you feel like you’re letting the other part of your team down, and that’s the worst part of it. We feel like we probably should have put that game away a little earlier and we didn’t. So we missed some opportunities that we’re going to have to clean up.”
UMHB is set to kickoff against Birmingham-Southern at noon on Nov. 27 at Crusader Stadium.
Riley Zayas is the managing editor of True To The Cru. He has worked as a sportswriter since 2016 and can be contacted at rileyzayastruetothecru.com.