Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru
BELTON, Texas- The last time the D-III football playoffs were contested, UMHB’s 2019 season was ended by Wisconsin-Whitewater in a quarterfinal matchup in Belton. Now, with Saturday’s 49-24 win over Linfield, the Crusaders earned an opportunity at redemption.
UMHB is preparing to head 1,104 miles north for Saturday’s matchup, facing the Warhawks of UWW in the semifinals, with a spot in the Stagg Bowl on the line.
“Whitewater always is a strong football team,” UMHB head coach Pete Fredenburg said Monday. “We look forward to the challenge and obviously look forward to the trip.”
The last time the Cru was in Whitewater, temperatures dropped to a mere six degrees by kickoff, and the field, with the current turf playing surface not yet installed, resembled a pure sheet of ice.
“The last memory I have of Whitewater, it was a heartbreaking loss but an incredible experience,” Fredenburg said of the 16-7 loss. “But it was an incredible experience. I remember the field was actually iced over. We were in awe of the surroundings.”
The weather is not projected to be as frigid on Saturday as it was in 2007-high of 45, low of 24, partly sunny- but it certainly will not feel like Belton.
“The national championship is going to be played in Canton, Ohio,” Fredenburg noted. “You’re going to have to be ready for some weather issues that you deal with. The next game we play in Wisconsin there’s going to be a concern about weather issues. But that’s part of the game and what we want to accomplish.”
Finding success against the Warhawks will come to a variety of facets of the game, but there is no question that stopping Whitewater running back Alex Peete will be a critical aspect. The senior has tallied 1,403 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns this season, on his way to First-Team All-Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) honors.
“He’s certainly a great running back,” Fredenburg said of Peete. “We had fits with him in ‘19 and I know we will again this year. I don’t think you can stop him but maybe we can slow him down some.”
Another major matchup to pay attention to features the UWW offensive line against the Crusader defensive line. Fredenburg has noted multiple times over the last month how impressed he has been with the improvement from the defensive front, which tallied five sacks against Linfield and held the Wildcats to a mere 30 rushing yards. The UWW offensive line is known for its incredible physicality, athleticism and size, which was key in the Warhawks last defeat of the Cru. One of the starting guards on that 2019 UWW team was current Denver Broncos starter Quinn Meinerz, who earned AP All-America honors later that season.
“The offensive line at Whitewater is always big and physical and strong,” Fredenburg said. “Obviously the defensive line has a big job ahead of them to match up with [the UWW offensive line]. We rely on our defensive line to do a lot.”
While there are high expectations for the defense on Saturday, who allowed 422 yards through the air against Linfield, the UMHB offense enters the matchup with momentum. The Crusaders moved the ball with ease last week, as Kyle King fired a program-record six touchdown passes. Duplicating that performance is much easier said than done, but King has more than proven himself as a reliable passer.
“I don’t know what it was, but we need to do it again,” Fredenburg said of King’s performance. “You hope he can redo that.”
The Crusader offensive line played no small role in the winning effort, with solid pass protection against the Linfield defensive front. UWW’s defensive line is bigger than Linfield’s in terms of height and weight, setting up an increased challenge for the UMHB blockers, who have developed over the course of the last 13 games.
“They have a big task ahead of them, blocking the team from Whitewater,” Fredenburg said. “[Whitewater] always has great size and athleticism. But they did a fantastic job. They’re growing and developing into an outstanding unit. I think that might be one of the best offensive performances we’ve ever had.
“Obviously that’s a tribute to [offensive coordinator] Stephen Lee and all of his coaches and putting together the game plan and then going out and executing it was a tremendous job by our players.”
Three weeks ago, 32 teams began the playoffs with an opportunity to win a national championship. That list has been whittled down to four: UMHB, UWW, Mount Union, and the reigning national champion, North Central. Fredenburg noted Monday that these four programs, who have all played in the Stagg Bowl at least once since 2018, are products of the great universities that support them.
“I think the programs you see reappearing, you can attribute that to some longevity and great coaches and recruiting,” Fredenburg said. “But I also think all the universities that are being represented are great schools and people are attracted to them to get their education. We’re thrilled to be mentioned in those four.”
Going on the road, especially north, is not UMHB’s first choice when compared with hosting, Fredenburg told reporters. But at the same time, it provides a new opportunity for the Crusaders, who have not played on the road in the postseason since winning it all in 2018.
“What I say to them this mainly comes through the leadership group that talks to them,” Fredenburg said of the preparation for the players who have not had the experience of playing a road playoff game. “It has more impact on the guys understanding what it’s going to be like with the travel arrangements and all of those things. So it’s really important that we just prepare them for every part that we’re going to encounter along the way. And stay focused on what we’re here to do.”
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.