Above photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON- Before Saturday night’s game against Southwestern even got underway, there were loud cheers from the crowd. Pete Fredenburg, the architect of the nationally-dominant UMHB football program, was recognized for his legendary role in the program’s history, with the field named “Fredenburg Field” in his honor.
As the plaques on the brick wall at the end of either end zone were unveiled, to the roar of a crowd featuring former Crusaders, current students, and alumni who witnessed the program’s incredible rise under Fredenburg’s leadership.
“When they showed me the coin, I lost it,” Fredenburg said, referencing the specially-made coin used for Saturday’s coin toss, bearing his image.
As if in his honor, the Crusaders put together a notable bounce-back performance, dominating Southwestern by a score of 68-14, after dropping last weekend’s 28-24 contest at Wisconsin-Whitewater. Back in the friendly confines of Crusader Stadium, UMHB displayed the same kind of superior firepower it had in much of the last decade under Fredenburg’s guidance. And the takeaways from last Saturday’s result were applied in the early moments of the contest.
“We might be more athletic than we’ve ever been, we just don’t have as much experience,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said postgame. “It’s understanding that technique is what gets you through those things. We just have to keep doing that.”
The execution occurred from the game’s very first play, when the UMHB kickoff unit swarmed to the ball as Southwestern’s Payton Vaughn attempted to return the ball upfield. He only reached the 12-yard line. A three-and-out followed, and UMHB took its first offensive possession of the game. It was the first of eight third-down stos for the Cru defense, as Southwestern converted on just one third-down play in the opening half.
“It felt really good because that was one of the main things we focused on this week, getting off the field and getting the ball to our offense,” linebacker Johnny Smith-Rider said postgame.
The offense then took center stage, with a seven-play, 55-yard drive capped by Kyle King’s first touchdown of the night to receiver K.J. Miller within the game’s first three minutes. And that was just the beginning.
King went on to tie the program record for single-game passing touchdowns in the first half, with six to three different receivers. There was little the Southwestern defense could do to slow the progress of the Crusader offense, as King completed passes with ease. Miller’s second touchdown of the first half was Sportscenter-worthy sprint, as the receiver caught a swing pass from King near the far sideline, and moved upfield behind his blockers before beginning an all-out sprint down the sideline, outracing the Southwestern defensive backs who followed in pursuit. The 79-yard score made it 41-0, and a 62-yard touchdown pass from King to Jerry Day Jr. with 1;07 left in the second quarter completed a stellar first half that saw UMHB head to the locker room with a comfortable 48-0 advantage.
“In the first half, I thought we came out in all three phases and did the little things right,” Harmon said postgame. “That’s kind of how it got the way it got.”
Those “little things” produced 418 yards of total offense for the Cru in the first half, compared to a mere 95 for Southwestern. Running back Aphonso Thomas returned to the field after going to the sideline with an apparent injury following his first carry of the game, a 25-yard run, and on just three rushing attempts, accumulated 92 yards and a touchdown. The lone first-half rushing score for the Cru came when Thomas raced a season-long 65 yards on the first play of UMHB’s second possession.
The offense scored 21 second-half points, and the defense did not surrender many more opportunities to Southwestern in the second half, though the Pirates did reach the end zone with a touchdown in both the third and fourth quarters. Still, Harmon felt the Crusaders let up a little too much with victory as a given coming out of halftime.
“We talked about momentum and trying to keep it, coming out of halftime,” Harmon said. “The offense went down and scored right away, and the defense got a three-and-out. After that, I thought we lost a lot of focus. We have some things there to fix.”
Room for improvement is a positive, Harmon added, and having this matchup between battles with nationally-ranked Top 10 opponents felt necessary. Coming off the narrow defeat at Whitewater, and aware that No. 6 Hardin-Simmons is next on the schedule, opening the ASC slate with the kind of performance UMHB exhibited on Saturday, proved beneficial.
“We’re in playoff mode,” Harmon said, emphasizing a point he also made at Monday’s press conference. “We have to win every game out, or we won’t get in. The kids know it, and we have to keep the pressure on.”
The trust between the players and the coaching staff continues to be vital, and Smith-Rider noted that trust as being a critical component in his recent performances, which included being named to D3football.com’s Week 1 Team of the Week. In Saturday’s win, the sophomore tallied 2.0 tackles for loss in the first two quarters, and tied for the team lead in tackles, with six.
Led by Smith-Rider, the UMHB defense navigated to the ball quickly, and challenged the Pirate offense, which was led by backup quarterback Damian Gomez. Gomez had little time in the pocket against the defensive front of UMHB, and the Crusaders sacked him twice. He finished 26-of-35 passing with 213 yards, though most of that came in the second half.
“What we were really talking about was third downs,” Harmon said of the team’s defensive objectives. “I thought we got a little more pressure out of our defensive line. We sent five and six [rushers] a little bit more than we did against Whitewater.”
With additional confidence and a 1-0 ASC record, UMHB sets its sights on the matchup that looms a week from Saturday at HSU in Abilene. Undoubtedly the game circled on both team’s calendars, it is likely to decide the conference title. Harmon has no doubt that his team will be prepared.
“That’s why you play Wisconsin-Whitewater in Wisconsin,” Harmon when asked about how his players will handle the road atmosphere at HSU. “I don’t think it’s going to be any rowdier than that. I think last week prepared us for this coming week. Our guys are going to accept every challenge.”