Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru
BELTON, Texas- It has been three seasons since UMHB last battled Linfield on the gridiron. And yet, a rivalry still remains between the two programs, who are separated by 2,007 miles, and have established themselves as the D-III powerhouses in the west over the last decade.
No doubt, the main contribution to that has been the six postseason meetings between the Wildcats and Crusaders, with Linfield winning the first four of those contests, but UMHB claiming the next two.
“We played them in 2004 in the Stagg Bowl, and in my opinion, I feel like we should have won that game,” UMHB head coach Pete Fredenburg said Monday. “That started it. We went for four different occasions where we couldn’t beat them.
“Then we finally beat them in ‘16 and since then, we’ve beaten them every time. They’re really well-coached and a great program. They will obviously create a lot of issues for us to defend and run against.”
Linfield certainly performed well on both sides of the ball in its 31-28 second-round win over top-seeded Saint John’s last Saturday, clinching a spot in the quarterfinal round and a rematch against UMHB. In the victory, the Wildcats amassed 273 total yards of offense, picking up 17 first downs, and converted on four of five red zone opportunities.
But the Crusaders are coming off a 42-7 victory over Birmingham-Southern, and as Fredenburg noted on Monday, played some of their best football of the season in the second-round win.
“I think that was our best performance to date on both sides of the ball,” Fredenburg said of Saturday’s performance. “We feel like this is a great spot to be in at this time. We look forward to a great Linfield team coming in here.”
Starring for UMHB offensively in the win was quarterback Ryan Redding, who entered the week listed second on the depth chart, but was told Thursday he would start the first playoff game of his four-year collegiate career. The senior was stellar, completing 14 of 23 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns in his third start of the season.
“We felt like Kyle was not at his best and decided to give Ryan a chance,” Fredenburg said. “He took it and did a great job. We don’t necessarily have a controversy. We just have two really good quarterbacks.”
As for a starter against Linfield, Fredenburg and his staff are waiting until the end of the week to make that decision.
“The one that gets the nod will be the one that performs the best this week [in practice],” Fredenburg noted.
Regardless of who has been on the field at quarterback this season, the offense has been capable of creating big plays, significant gains, and high-scoring performances. The Crusaders are No. 15 in the nation in total offense (473.5 yards/game), No. 13 in third-down conversion percentage (.511), and No. 3 in scoring offense (50.2 points/game). Fredenburg told reporters that a portion of that success is credit to the work of offensive coordinator Stephen Lee and the rest of the offensive coaching staff.
“Stephen Lee does a great job of preparing those guys for what to expect,” Fredenburg said, continuing to talk about the role the quarterbacks play in the offense. “We build so much of our offense around what people are doing and how they’re defending us.“
That offense will be tremendously important on Saturday, as UMHB prepares for one of the toughest defenses it has faced this season. Trinity put up a fight in the first round, holding the Cru to just 13 points, but Linfield has also proven itself defensively, ranked sixth in the nation in total defense (210.5 yards allowed/game). The Wildcats have been especially good defending the run, allowing an average of just 47.5 rushing yards per game.
The in-game matchup to pay attention to, however, will be the play of Linfield quarterback Wyatt Smith against the Crusader pass defense. Linfield throws the ball an average of 39 times per game, and Smith has been nearly unstoppable through the air, with 40 passing touchdowns and 301 passing yards per game. However, the Cru defense ranks sixth in D-III in passing yards allowed and has been anchored by a number of veterans, including fifth-year seniors Keith Gipson, Jefferson Fritz, and Akeem Jackson.
“We played [Smith] before, when he was a freshman,” Fredenburg said of the matchup on Monday. “He’s a lot better now than he was then. It’ll be a big challenge for our defense. We’re excited about the prospects. I think our players are excited about playing a team like Linfield.”
As the Crusaders get further into the playoffs, the level of opposition naturally increases. And it is a challenge Fredenburg and his team welcome, especially considering the product put on the field over the last two weeks, in playoff victories over Top 20 teams.
“This team is better than the other two teams we have played,” Fredenburg said of Linfield. “Obviously, it will be a big test. But our front four is playing extremely well right now. The defense has really come on. Offensively, we need to continue to grow, and they’re maturing at the right time as well.”
UMHB kicks off against Linfield at noon on Dec. 4 at Crusader Stadium in Belton.
Riley Zayas is the managing editor of True To The Cru. He has worked as a sportswriter since 2016 and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.