Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru
BELTON, Texas- It had been three weeks since Kyle King had thrown a touchdown pass. So he tossed six on Saturday.
The UMHB quarterback threw for 345 yards and broke the program’s single-game passing touchdown record as the Crusaders defeated Linfield 49-24 in the NCAA playoff quarterfinal matchup. It sets up a semifinal meeting between UMHB and Wisconsin-Whitewater on Dec. 11.
“I was just excited to play again after not getting to play last week,” King told reporters postgame. “That was kind of a bad situation for me so I wanted to bounce back from that. The first drive I was a little jittery. After that, my nerves calmed down and I thought it went pretty well.”
Consecutive three-and-outs from the UMHB offense early gave Linfield the opportunity to take a 3-0 advantage with 7:04 in the first quarter. The Wildcats moved the ball well on its first scoring drive, but the Crusader defense stopped them on three straight occasions at the goal line to force the field goal.
From that point, it took the UMHB offense little time to issue a response, taking its first lead with two minutes left in the opening quarter as KJ Miller recorded the first passing touchdown of his four-year collegiate career. A receiver who tallied a 15-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter, Miller flashed his throwing ability, taking a lateral pass from King and connected with Brenton Martin on the right side of the field for a 58-yard score.
“You should’ve seen it all week long,” UMHB head coach Pete Fredenburg said postgame of the lateral pass play from Miller to Martin. “What an athlete No. 7 is. What can he not do?”
“40 yards on the dot,” added King of Miller’s pass.
King got his opportunity to demonstrate his downfield accuracy on the Crusaders’ next possession, when he completed an 11-yard pass to Brandon Jordan, who went up and over Linfield’s Evan Fisette for a spectacular grab, putting UMHB up 14-3.
“I just have to show up when they call,” Jordan, who tallied three receiving touchdowns, said. “As long as I have opportunities, I’ll do my best to provide for the team.”
He provided in a big way, as his athleticism, combined with his 6’6 frame, made him nearly impossible to cover. The senior made seven catches for a team-high 136 yards. As King noted postgame, the Linfield secondary had tight coverage on UMHB’s receivers for much of the contest, but the Crusader wideouts made a number of exceptional plays.
“I thought our receivers made tons of plays today,” King said. “Brandon, KJ, Brenton, and Gary made a great catch over the middle. All of our guys stepped up to the plate. [Linfield’s defenders] were in decent coverage sometimes, we just made good plays.”
On a day in which UMHB tallied 135 rushing yards on the ground, it was the passing game that took center stage, as it accounted for 403 of the Cru’s 538 yards of total offense. Following Jordan’s first touchdown catch in the end zone, King found Martin down the right sideline with 2:43 left in the first half, and it was Martin who made an acrobatic play, pulling in the ball over the outstretched hands of Ben Baxter, then breaking the attempted tackle as he raced into the end one. The 57-yard score went down as UMHB’s second-longest of the day, the first also going to Martin on the pass from Miller.
“That’s probably the most fun I’ve had since the Hardin-Simmons game,” King said following the victory. “Big games are fun. There’s a lot on the line. If you mess up, you lose. That makes us play better as a team. When you do come out and execute what you’ve been practicing, it’s a great feeling. It’s like studying for a test and making a 100.”
If Saturday’s offensive performance was graded, it is likely King and the offense would have earned a perfect mark. It was the most passing yards the Cru tallied in a game this season, as well as the most receptions.
Linfield had an exceptional offensive performance of their own, scoring just 49 seconds after Martin’s score, cutting the UMHB lead to 21-10 on a 70-yard touchdown pass to tailback Connor McNabb. In fact, the Wildcats executed every phase of their offensive gameplan, with quarterback Wyatt Smith throwing for a career-high 442 yards on 42 completions in the final game of his career.
“I don’t think I’ve seen that against their defense,” Linfield head coach Joseph Smith said of Smith’s performance. “Our goal was to score between 21 and 24 points and no turnovers. That’s very difficult to do against the defense. I haven’t seen a better game, frankly, in all of Wyatt’s career.”
Though Linfield achieved both of those objectives, and tallied the most passing yards UMHB’s defense has allowed this season, the secondary struggled to stay in stride with the Cru’s receiving corps. With 32 seconds remaining in the second quarter, King connected with Jordan once again in the end zone, with the same result. That late score put UMHB up 28-10 at halftime, and was a deficit Linfield was unable to overcome, despite the solid offensive effort.
“I think that was a very difficult blow,” Smith stated simply of Jordan’s late first half score.
Linfield got on the board first in the second half, as Wyatt Smith completed the first of his two touchdown passes to leading receiver Joel Valadez with 7:07 in the third quarter, but the Crusaders had an answer to the score. Miller hauled in a 15-yard touchdown reception on the following drive, and Jordan put the game out of reach with his third score, a 41-yard reception, with 59 seconds in the third.
“We always play as a team,” Fredenburg said. “We felt like we had to move the football and they gave us some opportunities with one-on-one matchups that we felt like we could capitalize on.”
The victory sets UMHB up with a 1,104 mile trip north to Whitewater, Wisconsin for the semifinal contest. As fate would have it, it was UWW who knocked UMHB out of the playoffs in 2019 in Belton. Now, the Crusaders travel to Whitewater with a spot in the Stagg Bowl on the line.
“We’ve waited a long time,” Fredenburg said. “Defensively we have rehearsed that loss. It causes a bunch of grief. We have done some things defensively to hopefully change that process. We will match up with Wisconsin-Whitewater and we are looking forward to the opportunity.”
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.