UMHB football enters second round of D-III playoffs with expectations of improvement

Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru

BELTON, Texas- There is no doubt that in the playoffs, regardless of the margin of victory, achieving the win is the bottom line. As quarterback Kyle King said postgame on Saturday, “It’s  just survive and advance at this point.” 

But for the UMHB football team, ranked No. 2 in the country, Saturday’s narrow 13-3 first-round playoff win over Trinity did not feature the kind of consistent play it would have liked. 

An Aphonso Thomas rushing touchdown late in the fourth quarter was enough to propel the Crusaders into the second round of the playoffs, though perhaps more importantly, it got the entire team’s attention. 

“For whatever reason, we did not play as well as we hoped,” Fredenburg told reporters on Monday. “But it definitely got our players’ attention. Our focus and study and all the things that are important to your success in this environment was called into question and I think we will address it and come out of it much better because of it.”

The offense struggled at times to move the ball, as Trinity kept in stride with the Cru, trailing by one possession for all but two minutes of the second half. A significant part of the Tigers’ ability to compete stemmed from the defensive effort of the nation’s No. 2 defense. 

“They were very well coached and did a nice job of executing their defense,” Fredenburg said of Trinity. “I don’t think that we did. So it’s hard to judge. But you do have to give them credit for playing an incredible game on defense. They took a lot of the things we like to do away from us. We will hopefully overcome that in the future.”

The “future” is as soon as Saturday, when UMHB hosts a second-round matchup against Birmingham-Southern, the No. 19 team in the country who defeated Huntington 24-14 last week. 

According to Fredenburg, the Panthers are “tremendous competitors” with a high-octane rushing attack. 

“From what I’ve looked at, they like to run the ball,” remarked Fredenburg. “They have a good running back. Their quarterback is a big, tall guy that can run and he throws the ball well. 

“Defensively, they move the ball around and do some things with some personnel who are really talented. They are just tremendous competitors who play at a very high level, so I think it will be an interesting matchup.”

One area that Fredenburg identified as having room for growth was the passing game as a whole. With very little time to throw due to Trinity’s pass rush, King was flushed from the pocket on numerous occasions. He finished just 10-of-22 passing, for 128 yards and an interception. 

“It was a combination of several things,” Fredenburg said of the passing game struggles. “Number one, a good defensive line rush. The second thing was that our quarterback dropped [back] a little deeper than normal which I think made him a little more vulnerable to pressure. 

“Again, I think we will do a much better job of preparing him for that kind of scenario. We will do a better job of giving him time to throw. We were obviously disappointed in our production of throwing the ball, so that is something that has to be improved on if we hope to continue to move down the line in the playoffs.”

Fredenburg added that King is at 100 percent after being sidelined for the Belhaven and Howard Payne games as he recovered from a turf toe injury. 

“He’s 100 percent,” Fredenburg said of King. “He needs to be 100 percent.”

King is a vital leader for the Cru, but unlike the team’s other three captains- Gary Ruckman, Jefferson Fritz and Mikkah Hackett- the Milano, Texas native had never seen playoff action until Saturday. His first season at UMHB, 2019, was spent on the junior varsity roster. Prior to that, he saw little action with Howard Payne, who did not reach the postseason in his two years there. So for the most part, Saturday’s game was a learning experience, as he took the field for his first collegiate playoff game. 

“Kyle is one of the most dynamic leaders we have on our football team and is very well respected,” Fredenburg said at the news conference. “He is a great competitor and will respond very well to that game on Saturday.”

The same is true for four of the five starters on the Crusader offensive line, with the exception of senior center Jeffery Sims. Three are sophomores, along with junior Matt Sanders, who played in just two games in 2019, meaning four of the five starters on the line played in their first collegiate playoff game on Saturday. 

“What so many of our players don’t have is the experience of going through an offseason,” Fredenburg told reporters. “The off-season is where we really develop some mental and physical toughness and the things that we really hang our hat on as far as our program is concerned. 

“Our offensive line, nearly all of those guys are really freshman kids,” Fredenburg continued. “Jeff Sims is the one guy that has played for a long time, but the rest of them are new. We’re growing. The game against Trinity will be an eye-opening experience for so many of our young guys and will be something that they can really build on. 

“That is the goal we have in mind right now for the second game. To learn from the first and do more than we can to prepare for a game of this sort and the kind of environment that we’re going to be in.”
Riley Zayas serves as the managing editor of True To The Cru. He has worked as a sportswriter since 2016 and can be contacted at rileyzayas@truetothecru.com.

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