Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON- UMHB retained its spot atop the D3football.com Top 25 poll on Sunday afternoon, and rightfully so. The Crusaders handily defeated an exceptional Muhlenberg team that entered the matchup ranked No. 11 in the nation, 62-13.
That was only the beginning of a tough September for the Cru, however, who are now tasked with making the trek to Whitewater, Wisconsin on Saturday, for a prominent national showdown with No. 6 UW-Whitewater. Though the Warhawks fell in their season opener, 24-10, at the hands of No. 4 St. John’s, UMHB head coach Larry Harmon expects an even tougher challenge to await his team when it takes the field on Saturday. Not to mention it is UW-Whitewater’s home opener, and there has been talk that the Warhawks are hoping to fill Perkins Stadium to full capacity (13,500).
“We made a lot of mistakes on all three phases that we have to get cleaned up,” Harmon said, “because we have to go into the lion’s den and face a tremendous Whitewater team that probably feels like they didn’t play very well last Saturday and they have a lot to prove.
“They played a national championship game last week and we just played a playoff game. We got our work cut out for us this week.”
As UMHB prepares for its first road contest of 2022, here are three takeaways from Harmon’s press conference on Monday.
Confidence was built from UMHB’s semifinal win in Whitewater less than a year ago
UMHB and UW-Whitewater have a history of playoff battles, having met in each of the last three years in which the NCAA playoffs were contested. The Cru won two of those meetings, including the December 11 matchup in 2021 that saw UMHB pull out a 24-7 win at Whitewater and punch its ticket to the Stagg Bowl. The year prior, the script was flipped with the Warhawks ending UMHB’s playoff run early in a 26-7 win.
“What did you guys learn from that contest last year?.” Harmon was asked Monday.
“That we could match up physically with them,” he responded. “In 2019, they came to Belton in that quarterfinal game and physically beat us up every which way. It put a sour taste in our mouths. The kids dedicated themselves more in the weight room and we obviously went in with a better game plan than we did [in 2019].”
If history repeats itself, the battle in the trenches will be critical
UW-Whitewater can certainly gain yardage through the air, but the Warhawks are typically most successful when keeping it on the ground. “Pound the Rock” has become a sort of tagline for the reigning WIAC champions, who averaged 202 rushing yards per game a year ago.
“When they’re able to stay in sets of two or three tight ends, they’re difficult to stop,” Harmon noted. “That’s the key for us, and that’s what our guys know.”
Harmon said that it will be easy to gauge the success of UMHB’s defense against Whitewater’s ground attack by looking at the yardage needed to be gained for a first down on third down plays. If the Warhawks have it their way, they will run down the clock, keeping the ball out of the hands of the Crusader offense, and steadily move the ball upfield. The Cru defense is prepared to counter that method, however, as they did last December in the national semifinal, when they held the Warhawks to just seven points.
“If we’re going through the game on Saturday and you hear a lot of ‘3rd and 1, 4th and 1’, you know it’s not going very well for us. But if it’s 3rd and 6 or 3rd and 5, we’ve got a fighting chance.”
UW-Whitewater has a new offensive coordinator in Nick Pesik, and threw the ball 31 times against St. John’s in their week one loss. But the strength of their offensive line and rushing attack is still a major plus. The five starters on the line for UW-Whitewater last Saturday averaged a height of 6’2, and a weight of 302 lbs. The Warhawks ran the ball 34 times for 147 positive yards, but quarterback Evan Lewandowski was sacked five times, which contributed to the net rushing total of just 89 yards.
“They play old-style football,” Harmon said. “It’s awesome to watch. I’ve always appreciated their style of football.”
One of the major storylines for UMHB entering the fall surrounded the defense, and the key contributors who graduated, but against Muhlenberg, the Cru held its own on that side of the ball. Facing UW-Whitewater will be another step up, Harmon said, and a benchmark for not only the physicality of the defense, but also the unit’s mental toughness.
“The years that they have beaten us, they have won in the trenches,” Harmon said. “The years we’ve beaten them, we were more physical than they were. It’s a tremendous matchup. It’s a national championship game. What it means to our program is, it’ll let us know, especially defensively, whether our youth and inexperience has the mental toughness to play a full, really physical game.”
Titus Dunk is expected to make his season debut this week
UMHB was without one of its top returning defensive starters on Saturday night, as cornerback Titus Dunk did not play due to a hamstring injury. The Round Rock high school product played in all 15 games in 2021, tallying an interception, 39 tackles, and two tackles for loss.
“Titus Dunk ran on Sunday,” Harmon said. “Everything was fine, so right now [he] is cleared to go.”
Dunk’s presence should aid UMHB at the cornerback position. The Cru also have reliable contributors in Trashawn Adams, who led the team in tackles with nine on Saturday, and Jordan See, who recorded three pass breakups against Muhlenberg.
UMHB kicks off against UW-Whitewater at noon central time on Sept. 10.