Above photo by CJ Halloran/True To The Cru
WHITEWATER, Wis.- The receivers won their routes, quarterback Kyle King did not cease in his passing accuracy, and the defense was locked in for all 60 minutes. So UMHB defied the odds, braved the frigid temperatures, and came out of Wisconsin with a 24-7 victory over Wisconsin-Whitewater in the D-III semifinals, clinching a spot in the 2021 Stagg Bowl.
The Stagg Bowl, D-III’s national title game, is set for Dec. 17 in Canton, Ohio, featuring the defending national champions of North Central College, against UMHB, who last won it all in 2018.
“It’s a great win obviously,” UMHB head coach Pete Fredenburg said. “We’re tremendously excited about the opportunities that we had to play a fantastic football team. We’re extremely excited to go to the national championship.”
The Crusaders punched their ticket to Canton in a similar way to the method they used to reach the semifinal matchup itself: relentless defense and an unstoppable passing attack.
“We knew they were good on defense, and we felt like we were good on defense,” Fredenburg said. “So we did feel like [getting stops defensively] was going to be a big deal. It usually turns out that way, that whoever has the most turnovers or gives up the bigger plays is the team that loses.
“But I was really impressed with the way our offense moved the ball. I think we did a great job of moving the ball, and that was, in my opinion, an outstanding part of what led to this victory.”
Leading the offensive charge was receiver Brandon Jordan, who followed up a three-score performance against Linfield last week with two touchdowns and 164 yards. He tallied 11 receptions, which made up for exactly half of King’s completions. King was 22-of-33 passing for 309 yards, and was critical in the Cru’s success on that side of the ball.
“Yeah I’m probably the best at football I’ve been,” King said following the win, “which is where you’re supposed to be at this point in the season.”
Not only did he find Jordan almost a dozen times, but also completed passes to KJ Miller, Brendon Martin, Gary Ruckman, and Aaron Sims.
“You’ve got to give their quarterback a lot of credit,” Wisconsin-Whitewater head coach Kevin Bullis said postgame. “He puts it in a place for [Jordan]. My hat’s off to both those young men. We knew that was going to be a challenge coming in. In the end, [Jordan] won more battles than we did.”
That included UMHB’s first two scoring drives in the first half, which put the Crusaders up 14-0 with 9:46 in the second quarter. After starting with consecutive three-and-out possessions, the UMHB offense found its rhythm and went to work, putting together a methodical 14-play, 82-yard drive that spanned 5:46. It was capped by King’s first touchdown pass of the day to Jordan from nine yards out, as the senior quarterback saw the 6’6 wideout racing across the end zone. Just over three minutes later, the King-Jordan connection was seen again, as the Cru found the end zone on another nine-yard touchdown pass.
“I just thank my teammates for helping me be successful,” Jordan noted. “They believe in me, they push me and hold me accountable. The work is showing. I’m just happy for the team.”
Assembling the lead was a byproduct of quality offensive efficiency, but maintaining that advantage was in the hands of the defense. The Crusaders did not disappoint, not even against an offensive line that had proven successful time and time again throughout the 2021 regular season in paving the way for All-Conference running back Alex Peete. As Fredenburg noted, Peete was not stopped, but he was slowed, held to a mere 43 yards on 20 carries, a season-low for the fifth-year senior.
“We just weren’t establishing consistency passing, [so] we weren’t able to establish the consistency running,” Bullis said. “We did on some drives, but in games like this, you don’t have a lot of wiggle room for error.”
“We felt like it was really important that everything started with Peete,” Fredenburg noted. “We really wanted to stay closer to the ball. It started in ‘19, when they beat us. We felt like we couldn’t stop the run. So it was really our goal to get them behind the chains a little bit. First and second downs were really important to us.”
Wisconsin-Whitewater was held scoreless as UMHB mounted a 17-0 lead midway through the second quarter, before reaching the end zone on a nine-yard pass from quarterback Max Meylor to receiver Tyler Holte with 1:01 remaining in the first half. Holte finished with a team-high 91 yards on six receptions, and scored the only touchdown in the Warhawks’ season finale.
“We just couldn’t get going on offense,” Holte said. “We had the one good drive at the end of the half, but we really just couldn’t get going.”
The Crusaders extended their advantage to 24-7 on a Kenneth Cormier one-yard rushing touchdown out of the wildcat formation with 6:31 remaining in the third quarter. That play was timely, as it was fourth-and-goal, and made it a three-score game, something Bullis noted changed the outlook of the remainder of the second half.
“Three scores is a big deal,” Bullis said. “That’s why we should kick the field goal, even though our fans were not happy with us. You’re trying to make it, at that point, a two-score game. [When it gets to] three scores, it really puts the heat on you.”
The 37-yard field goal attempt with 9:36 to play was missed by Whitewater kicker Matt Maldonado, and UMHB closed it out from that point, limiting the Warhawks to just 75 yards of total offense in the final quarter, and zero net rushing yards.
Crusaders running back Aphonso Thomas eclipsed the 1,000 yard rushing mark this season with 79 yards in the win, and carried the ball a total of 26 times.
“He’s an outstanding running back,” Fredenburg said of Thomas. “We have three outstanding running backs. Certainly Aphonso does a great job of finding seams. You say, ‘How do you coach that?’ I really don’t think you do. You give him the ball, block hard, and he finds the little openings and seams.”
While the excitement of Saturday’s road win is undoubtedly something that will stick with the Crusaders moving forwards, the job is not yet finished, something both King and Fredenburg reflected in their postgame conversations with reporters.
“You don’t go to the national championship and it’s ok to lose because you’re at the national championship,” Fredenburg said. “The reality is that you have to go up there and win for you to really enjoy that whole environment. So we’re going to go to work, literally tomorrow, and do the best that we can to come back with a national championship.”
“If you go to the big dance,” King added, “you might as well win it.”
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.