Above photo courtesy of the Birmingham-Southern College Athletic Department
BIRMINGHAM, Ala.- For the UMHB football team, Saturday’s opponent, Birmingham-Southern, adds a slight uniqueness to a season that has gone according to script, as it will be the first time the two opponents have met.
But for BSC, the upcoming second-round playoff contest is only another element of what has been a memorable and historic season thus far. For the first time in program history, the Panthers reached the D-III playoffs, claiming one of the five at-large bids after a 9-1 regular season. Last week, head coach Tony Joe White’s team earned the program’s first-ever playoff victory, and better yet, it was at home, as they defeated Huntington, 24-14.
“It’s the first time BSC has been in the playoffs, so that was a thrill in and of itself,” Birmingham-Southern head coach Tony Joe White told True To The Cru. “To get to host was even more fun, and then to get the win was obviously quite special.”
The program looks drastically different now than it did five years ago, in 2016, when UMHB, coincidentally, clinched its first national title. That season, the Panthers went just 1-9, their only win coming against Sewanee. That opened the door for White and his staff to come to Birmingham and change the culture of the program, which had been reinstated just a decade prior.
“When we took over this program in 2017, they were coming off a 1-9 season,” White recalled. “There was just a bad culture and the players were really beat-up and downtrodden. The expectation was not very high.”
White and his team quickly changed that, improving the program’s win total in each of the next three seasons, before posting a respectable 2-2 record during an abbreviated spring campaign early this year due to COVID-19.
That success, which has continued into this season and right into the playoffs, was partially driven by improved recruiting and consistent message from the coaching staff.
“Our coaching staff did a phenomenal job of getting on the road and finding the right kind of fit for what Birmingham-Southern is as an institution,” White said. “Continuing to develop and keep those guys in the program, here we are, all these years later, instead of playing with so much turnover and starting over each year playing with freshmen and sophomores, we’re playing with juniors and seniors.”
One product of those early recruiting efforts in White’s first season at BSC is senior running back Robert Shufford. The 5’9, 186 lb All-American has paced the Panthers’ high-octane ground attack, which ranks No. 8 in the nation in rushing offense with an average of 294.1 yards per game. Individually, Shufford has made his senior year a memorable one, with 1,296 rush yards and 19 touchdowns.
But Shufford has not been the only cog in BSC’s offensive wheel. The Panthers regularly use three running backs at various points throughout a game, all of whom have tallied over 595 rushing yards this season.
“He’s an All-American and rightfully so,” White said of Shufford. “He’s a phenomenal back. He’s a little banged up right now, but we have two very good backups right behind him. We’ve played all three all year.”
Interestingly, the team’s third-leading rusher is not even a running back. That honor belongs to senior quarterback Trey Patterson, a three-year starter for the Panthers who joined the BSC program after two years at Georgia Military College.
“Because of the reputation and the accolades that Shufford has, our quarterback kind of gets lost in the shuffle,” White noted. “I think Trey is as good a quarterback in our conference as any. He’s kind of the glue that holds us all together. He’s never too high, he’s never too low. He’s tough as nails.”
Patterson has been critical in leading the BSC offense, which has allowed its running game to open up play-action passes and things of that nature against a defense prepared to stop the run.
“We want to run the football,” White said of his offensive strategy. “Running the ball helps set up our play-actions and screens and passing game. If we’re able to establish some kind of success running the ball, then typically we have good days.”
Establishing the run is sure to be a challenge against UMHB, who limited Trinity to a total of just 22 rushing yards in Saturday’s win. But BSC has learned to adapt throughout this season. Even last week, Huntington managed to hold the Panthers to 109 yards on the ground, but in turn, failed to stop the passing of Patterson, who had 175 yards through the air.
“People have keyed our running game all year and Trey has been able to take advantage of that and keep us ahead of the chains,” White said. “Huntington did a great job of taking away our running backs. We didn’t have a lot of productivity from our running back position but Trey threw for over 170 yards and rushed for 80. He’s able to give us a dynamic there that makes it hard to focus on just one element of our offense.”
During the regular season, BSC achieved road wins at Centre and Huntington, both quality opponents, which may prepare the Panthers for the environment they will face Saturday. But as White noted, Belton has an atmosphere that stands above the rest.
“It didn’t hurt,” White said of the notable road contests his team played, “but I think our guys understand that going to Belton, Texas is different. We’re excited about the opportunity. When you decide you’re going to play college football, you want an opportunity to play against the best in the country. And that’s what we get the opportunity to do.”
For White, coming back to the Lone Star State is a little more special, considering he grew up in Texas as the son of a high school coach, played quarterback at Texas A&M Commerce from 1991-1993 and even spent 2005 on the staff at Brownsboro High School in east Texas.
“It’s going to be good to get to go back home,” White said. “I’ve never been anywhere where people are more proud to say where they’re from than Texas. I’m the same way. So to get to come home and show off my home state is going to be fun.”
Ultimately, White and his team understand the tremendous task facing them on Saturday. UMHB has looked strong on both sides of the ball for the majority of this season, with few hiccups and number of dominant, one-sided victories. But BSC is looking forward to the challenge.
“You play the game in front of you,” White said. “The challenge of what Mary Hardin-Baylor does as far as their tradition and talent is not lost on us. They’re the No. 2 team in the country. We’re just excited about the opportunity to go out there, play them, and see where we stack up.”
Riley Zayas is the managing editor of True To The Cru. He has worked as a sportswriter since 2016 and can be contacted at email@example.com.