Above photo courtesy of Muhlenberg College
ALLENTOWN, Penn.-Over the last eight years, just seven teams nationally have accumulated a streak with eight wins or more in each of those seasons. One of those programs is UMHB, the defending national champions. Another is the Crusaders’ week one opponent: 11th-ranked Muhlenberg College.
Few programs in the east have enjoyed the level of consistency that the Mules have, especially as of late. Ranked No. 7 to end the 2021 season, Muhlenberg has posted a double-digit win total in each of the three seasons that current head coach Nate Milne has led the program. Additionally, Muhlenberg has also successfully laid claim to the Centennial Conference Championship for the last three years. And the Mules have not just been good regionally, or in the regular season. They have proven they belong in the Top 15 with at least two postseason victories in all three of those years under Milne. In other words, consistency does not lack in Allentown.
“I think it’s been our depth,” Milne said in a recent interview with True To The Cru. “We’ve been fortunate to recruit some pretty talented players and develop players where an injury doesn’t slow you down. I think there are a lot of talented teams in division three, but not everybody has the same level of depth.”
The Mules proved that to be at least a significant part of the equation a year ago, as they experienced a plethora of injuries to key contributors as the year played out, and still found the way to victory. Muhlenberg shut out consecutive opponents in the first two rounds of the playoffs, before falling in a narrow 35-29 overtime result against Mount Union.
“We had a couple of injuries in the offensive line and it never slowed us down,” Milne, who previously head coached at Susquehanna College, said. “We had a couple of injuries at running back, and we just plugged and played. We were missing our best cornerback for the last two playoff games, and we had a lot of guys who had played throughout the season step up.”
The Mules were a prime example a year ago of a team that reached its peak at the perfect point in the season. As their strength on the offensive and defensive lines steadily improved, Muhlenberg entered its name into the national conversation more and more often. A tough 42-35 loss to conference foe Ursinus in September was the beginning of a nine-game win streak that featured a 21-6 win over then-No. 11 Johns Hopkins in mid-October.
“We were average to below average at the beginning of the season,” Milne noted of the offensive line, which includes many returning starters this season. “We had five brand-new starters last year. We knew that would be something that took some time to develop, but once they got it figured out, we were pretty good up front.”
“The same thing could be said for our defensive front,” Milne added. “We brought back almost no starters from the 2019 team. All of those guys were brand-new. So we should return some good players on the defensive line that saw a lot of playing time. Early on in the season, I think as our lines go, the team will go. And the rest of us will have to catch up.”
Cornerback John Washington headlines the Muhlenberg defense, as a player Milne believes could reach All-American status by the season’s end. An All-Region selection in 2021, Washington tallied three interceptions and 33 solo tackles.
Not everyone from the 2021 team is back. Notably, starting quarterback Mike Hnatkowsky graduated, after throwing for 3,876 yards and 47 touchdowns in a remarkable passing year. In fact, Hnatkowsky has been the only player to start at quarterback with Milne as head coach, meaning that Muhlenberg is, in a way, venturing into uncharted territory at one of the more critical positions on the field.
“That position is unique and special,” Milne said. “We’ve been replacing really good players for a long time, and we feel confident in the guys we have on our roster. I think a couple of them are a little bit different from each other and that will be the fun part, seeing which one of those guys really steps up.”
Milne quipped that he and his staff will use “six different quarterbacks with six different offenses” on week one in Belton, but in all seriousness, the importance of the season-opening duel for both UMHB and Muhlenberg cannot be overstated. And perhaps even more so for the Mules. Playing in the Centennial Conference, Milne is limited to just one non-conference game each season. This skyrockets the value of that single game, especially in the case that Muhlenberg does not win the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Playoffs and is forced to vie for one of just three at-large bids. Competing in the same conference as No. 10 Johns Hopkins, that is a possibility Milne must consider.
“We didn’t see any downside to it,” Milne said of scheduling UMHB. “Even if we go down there and lose, it’s going to increase our strength of schedule. And we’ll know exactly what type of team we are. We’ll find out what our guys are made of to go on the road against one of the best teams in college football.”
The hype surrounding this matchup, not just in Belton or Allentown, but in the D-III community nationwide can already be felt. Both programs have been consistent playoff contenders, ranked amongst the nation’s best for several consecutive seasons, and bring a high-quality product into each game they play. But rarely do these elite programs face off outside of the postseason. In part, it is in an effort to preserve an unblemished record, but more often than not, it is the cost involved in out-of-region matchups that limits these sort of marquee showdowns.
“I think it’s awesome,” Milne said. “Not even from finding out what we have. It’s everything we want in college football. Coaches, players, fans, we all want to see the best teams play each other. And we’ll take that opportunity. I think it will help us in recruiting, where we can say, ‘We’ll go on the road and play the No. 1 team in the country. It doesn’t bother us.’ It’s what you want if you’re a college football player. You don’t come to Muhlenberg or Mary Hardin-Baylor to win 100 to nothing. They want to play the best, especially in an environment like Crusader Stadium, at night, in Texas. I don’t know why people wouldn’t sign up for that.”
The arrangement of the contest came as both programs searched near and far for quality opponents in the early months of the calendar year. Scheduling UMHB was not a thought that originally crossed Milne’s mind, but soon became a viable option for both programs.
“We were both sitting there in January and February, calling around places [looking for games],” Milne recently recalled. “Admittedly, Mary Hardin-Baylor was not first on our list. We had looked at the same group of schools I think they were looking at, which included some of the Wisconsin schools and some of the Minnesota schools.
“That was a little bit of shorter travel for us and still would’ve been a Top 10 or Top 15 matchup. But we couldn’t quite make it work out. We have no wiggle room in our schedule. Our conference plays one week of non-conference, and then we jump right into nine straight games of conference play. So we knew it was week one or bust.”
With little to work with, Milne made it clear that his team was willing to go on the road, which expanded his options tremendously. And as he puts it, “a little bit of luck” played into the creation of the first meeting ever between these two programs.
“When we said we’d be willing to go on the road to make our schedule balanced, it got everybody interested,” he continued. “That opened up our options. Coach Fredenburg called me in January and we weren’t ready to commit at that time because we are negotiating with a couple of other programs. But I finally got the opportunity to get in touch with the coaches down there and see if they were still open. Coach Harmon and I found enough common ground and a way to make it work.”
UMHB-Muhlenberg is not the only high-profile non-conference matchup the D-III world will see this season. The Cru has a rematch with Wisconsin-Whitewater the following weekend, and No. 5 St. John’s hosts No. 4 UW-Whitewater on the same evening that UMHB is hosting the Mules. Milne hopes that these types of non-conference duels can soon become the norm, rather than an anomaly.
“You want to challenge yourself,’ Milne said. “Each team, Muhlenberg and Mary Hardin-Baylor, will make tremendous strides after this first game towards what will ultimately be how they’re remembered at the end of the season.”