Above photo by CJ Halloran/True To The Cru
CANTON, Ohio- Facing No. 1 North Central, with its second national championship in three years on the line, UMHB delivered in a dominant performance on Friday night, in-line with the consistency evident throughout the season, and the poise that has been foundational in the program’s success.
The Crusaders claimed a 57-24 victory in the midst of rain and 40-degree temperatures, marking the 20th, and final victory, in 2021 for head coach Pete Fredenburg’s squad, who was seldom challenged on either side of the ball against the nation’s top-ranked team.
“There’s no feeling like it,” an overjoyed Fredenburg exclaimed postgame. “The effort, and camaraderie, and the guys coming together; it’s just been an awesome ride.
“The Covid year was really a tough year, but it really helped us develop and grow some young players. Then when we won the [ASC] championship and played the five games in the spring, I think it solidified our football team and what our goals would be and where we wanted to go.”
North Central, the top scoring offense in the country entering the game, was held to just 287 yards of total offense. Leading that defensive charge was senior linebacker Mikkah Hackett, who, in the final game of his collegiate career, performed at a level that was unmatched. He tallied 10 tackles and two interceptions while earning the game’s Most Outstanding Player honors.
“To finally go out with a national championship,” Hackett said, “is really a cinderella ending to my senior year.”
Hackett wasted little time making an impression from his spot at linebacker, getting into the backfield on the second play of the second quarter, sacking NCC quarterback Luke Lehnen for a loss of 10 yards, while forcing a fumble. Hackett recovered the loose ball, which led consecutive completed passes from quarterback Kyle King, though the Cardinals of NCC forced a fumble of their own on a 26-yard pass into the hands of Brenton Martin. It was one of only two turnovers for the Cru, both fumbles, and one of just two times that UMHB did not end the drive by putting points on the board.
Hackett soon got another opportunity, however, which did lead to scoring, when he recorded a momentum-changing interception with just 42 seconds left in the third quarter. Coming across the field, he stepped in front of Lehnen’s pass, and returned it to the UMHB 10-yard line, putting the Crusaders in a prime position to add to its 33-17 lead.
“Seeing the defense make big plays like that, when your offense is hot, is such a boost,” UMHB quarterback Kyle King said. “When you’re on offense, and you’re rolling, all you want is the ball. So when your defense can give you the ball fast again, you’re on top of the world.
“That’s how you win football games. You trust your defense, and they trust us, and you build off of each other.”
UMHB finished the short, four-play drive with a 22-yard field goal from kicker Brandon Cunningham, before Hackett intercepted Lehnen again on the following NCC drive, just under four minutes later with 12:19 in the fourth. That led to Kenneth Cormier’s 11-yard touchdown run five plays later, which all but sealed the Crusaders’ national title.
“It just wasn’t our night,” North Central head coach Jeff Thorne said postgame. “But it wasn’t because we screwed up. They forced those turnovers. That team played better football tonight.”
For as dominant as UMHB finished in all facets of the game, it was North Central who found the end zone first, just 12 seconds into the contest. A breakdown in kickoff defense by UMHB, combined with a number of key blocks by the NCC kick return unit, gave DeAngelo Hardy just enough room to return the opening kickoff for a 93-yard score, as the Cardinals earned an early boost of momentum, in addition to the 7-0 lead. But UMHB found a way to respond on its first offensive drive, when Cunningham connected on a 32-yard field goal, followed by 19-yard touchdown passes to Brandon Jordan and KJ Miller, giving the Crusaders a 16-7 advantage.
“That’s kind of a fluke thing,” King said of NCC’s early score. “I knew our defense would play well. There was no panic. Our offense did a good job of taking what they gave us and getting on the board.”
NCC battled back to make it a 17-16 game with 2:05 in the second quarter, as the Cardinals began to find traction in the running game. Running back Ethan Greenfield accounted for 48 of NCC’s 90 yards on its last scoring drive until late in the fourth quarter, crossing the goal line on a one-yard run up the middle with 2:05 in the second quarter.
UMHB’s offense quickly went to work in an effort to retake the lead, applying a faster-paced offense. Kenneth Cormier opened the possession with a 12-yard run, just before King completed four straight passes. Following a 13-yard pass into NCC territory, King’s completion down the sideline to KJ Miller into field-goal range was called back due to a holding call against offensive tackle Reuel Tandoh. While a penalty such as that one had the potential to ruin the drive, considering just 1:33 remained in the quarter, the King made up for it. Excellent pass protection from the offensive line led to a 20-yard completion to Brandon Jordan, who picked up the first down. It resulted in Cunningham’s second field goal of the evening, a 22-yarder as time expired, making the score 19-17 in favor of the Cru.
That was the only lead UMHB needed, as the Crusaders came out of halftime with a mission in mind. Aphonso Thomas found the end zone twice, putting UMHB up 33-17 by the end of the third quarter. On both scoring plays, which were run within the 15-yard line, Thomas got excellent blocking, including on the second score from four yards out, as tight end Connor Mullins single-handedly created an opening for Thomas to give the Cru a two-possession lead.
The offense continued to shine as the fourth quarter progressed, with King breaking the program’s single-game passing record, previously 397 yards, in a 436-yard performance. The senior, who has said publicly he plans to return in 2022, completed 22 of 29 passing attempts for three touchdowns, and did not throw a single interception.
“It’s unbelievable, the talent we had this year,” King said postgame of the team, and specifically the receiving corps. “I threw some bad balls today that were caught. That’s kind of the way it has been this year. [The receivers] make me right. I don’t worry about throwing an interception because, at the worst, they will knock it down. That’s the biggest comforter I can have, knowing the ball will not be intercepted because they’ll make a play on it.”
Make plays they did, as Martin and Miller each tallied nine receptions, and Jordan contributed with four. Aaron Sims scored his first touchdown of the season midway through the final quarter, pulling in a 37-yard pass from King to separate the margin to 43-17.
King’s sentiment was one felt by Thorne and his defense as well, who did all it could to slow the Crusaders, but struggled throughout the second half.
“We just ran into a little bit of a buzzsaw,” Thorne noted. “Their quarterback was dynamite. We saw it on film during the week. His ability to throw the ball down the field with accuracy and touch, is incredibly impressive. They were hard to defend.”
The incredible performance King had was only continuation of what he has accomplished against both Linfield and Wiscosnin-Whitewater in the last two playoff contests. In the win over Linfield, he broke the program record for passing touchdowns in a game, with five, and last week, at Whitewater, the Milano, Texas native threw for 309 yards. That all came on the heels of a rocky playoff start against Trinity, in which he completed just 13 passes, and was unavailable the following week in the victory over Birmingham-Southern. But through it all, the team never wavered in their confidence in King.
“Trinity was obviously not my brightest moment,” King said. “So I’m glad I got to bounce back from that. KJ was always there to have my back. Even the week I didn’t play, he was one of the ones who picked me up, and said, ‘It’s alright, we’re going to need you next week.’ KJ is such a special player, but there’s no selfishness in his whole body.
“That’s our whole team. Mikkah and Jacob Meuller are the same way. They’re probably the two best linebackers in the ASC, and they split reps during the game. They play the same position. You never see them throwing a fit about it. You don’t ever see them pouting about it. That’s why we are where we are today.”
The unselfishness on the defensive end led to a number of tackles made by two, even three
Crusaders. Hackett assisted on six tackles, and a total of 24 players contributed to UMHB’s 75 tackles in the victory. Cornerback Keith Gipson, at the heart of a number of plays as NCC ran the ball the outside often, led the Cru with 11 total tackles.
It was once said that discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment. Though the talent representing the Crusaders was more than sufficient to win on D-III’s biggest stage, it was the intangibles, including the discipline, combined with the unselfishness and poise, that stuck out most to Fredenburg about his team’s success Friday evening.
“Starting the program and reflecting back, it has been an amazing journey for me and my family,” Fredenburg said. “It’s been wonderful, because all of my experience coming into this was in D-I. When I took the job at Mary Hardin-Baylor and started dealing with D-III, I thought I would stay two or three years and stabilize my young son’s life. That was 24 years ago. What I have done is fallen in love with the D-III atmosphere and the whole essence of it. [Because of] guys like this, who play the game because they love to play, and do it unselfishly, and care very deeply about people who are competing with them for positions. That unselfishness and the camaraderie and the poise they play with…it’s been an incredible experience for me.”
Riley Zayas is the managing editor of True To The Cru. He ha worked as a sportswriter since 2016 and can be emailed at email@example.com.