Above photo of Larry Harmon by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON- Rivalry week has arrived.
It is a matchup, whether admitted or not, that is circled on the calendars of both Hardin-Simmons and UMHB well before fall camp even gets underway. It has to be. For the last 23 years, the winner of this matchup has gone on to win at least a share of the ASC title. And in certain cases, 2021 being the prime example, the difference between winning and losing this regular season contest is reaching the playoffs or not.
The storylines entering Saturday’s battle between the Crusaders and the Cowboys starts with the national rankings, in which UMHB sits at No. 5, and HSU immediately follows at No. 6. HSU has a new starting quarterback. UMHB has a new head coach. And just for good measure, this marks the first time the contest has ever been contested under the lights in Abilene.
“They got a lot of backing, and so do we,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said. “This truly is a rivalry.”
On Monday, Harmon met with the local media, discussing the Top 10 matchup that looms ahead for his squad, which comes off a 68-14 defeat of Southwestern just two days prior. Here are three takeaways.
The intensity in practice this week may be emphasized, but it is, and needs to be, the norm
There is no getting around the mystique of this rivalry, and hence, as former players have told True To The Cru, the feeling around the practice facility come Hardin-Simmons week is slightly different. The focus is increased, and so is the intensity.
“There’s more people around the fieldhouse, and the guys are making sure they do everything to be prepared,” Harmon said. “Practice has a little more excitement about it.”
Harmon added, however, that UMHB is in a quest for the conference title, not a single marquee win in September. Though Muhlenberg is undoubtedly a talented squad, the Mules dropped their week three contest at Ursinus, and are no longer ranked in the Top 25. This means that the Crusaders now do not have a win over a Top 25 opponent, and based on the projections of this season, Saturday might be their last chance to claim one. It also raises questions as to if UMHB would qualify for an at-large bid to the postseason. That is a question that Harmon would rather nobody have to answer.
“People are more locked into what they’re doing,” he added. “We were like that last week because we know every week we have to win to keep alive. So, I don’t necessarily think it’s just Hardin-Simmons. Our mindset had better be like that or somebody is going to knock us out of [playoff contention].
An assessment of HSU
Though UMHB last lost to the Cowboys in 2015, the Crusaders are 22-6 all-time against HSU, and enter Saturday’s contest with six straight wins in the rivalry. That is no reason to overlook HSU, Harmon noted, making mention of the 2021 version in which HSU assembled a 28-7 halftime lead before UMHB made a memorable comeback, winning 34-28.
“I think the game last year is definitely going to help us not overlook this thing,” Harmon said. “And then obviously, the mistake we made at Whitewater, not finishing it out when we had an opportunity, has put us in a playoff mode that our kids understand.”
As far as HSU goes…
“They’re very well-coached and very precise in what they do,” Harmon added. “They play with great emotion. They’re physical; Coach Burleson played O-Line, so he brings a toughness to them since he’s been the head coach.
“It goes back to the same thing with Whitewater. We’re going to have to match their physicality, stop the run, and make them one-dimensional. But then we’re going to have to be able to get the ball to our weapons.”
Amongst the points of emphasis continues to be third-down stops for the defense, necessary to mention considering HSU converted on 50 percent (7-of-14) of its third-down attempts at UW-Platteville a week ago.
“You have to get off the field on third down,” Harmon said. “We can’t allow Hardin-Simmons to keep our offense on the sideline just because of how explosive they are. We’re going to have to be good on third down, and hopefully we can keep third down in a defensive down where we have an opportunity to be successful.”
The timing of the game is not a thought for Harmon
For the second year in a row, this marquee matchup comes within the first month of the season. There are positives to that, such as the fact that it is scheduled for UMHB, just two weeks after facing another Top 10 opponent in No. 4 UW-Whitewater on the road. That allows for momentum and recent memory to be carried into the contest. However, there are also some who, having considered the fact that this matchup has been dubbed as the “unofficial ASC Championship game” for several years, would prefer it be played in the latter stages of the season. This would create more of a build-up, such as it did in 2019, when it was played in Belton on Oct. 26.
This considered, Harmon was asked if he, or the program, has any preference on the time of the season that the rivalry is played.
“I haven’t really thought about it either way,” Harmon responded. “If you’re thinking about it as the conference championship game, for the fans, then everybody might be more excited having it towards the end of the year. But it’s just how the schedule falls. We’re going to be ready to play whenever we have to play.”
UMHB kicks off against HSU at 6 p.m. in Abilene on Sept. 24. True To The Cru will be in Abilene, covering all the action.