Above photo by Mike Zayas/True To The Cru
ABILENE, Texas- In just under two minutes, the outlook of Saturday night’s Top 10 matchup changed completely.
One moment, No. 6 Hardin-Simmons was riding high, holding a 20-16 advantage, having kept No. 5 UMHB out of the end zone on all three of the Crusaders’ trips to the red zone. And the next, the Crusaders held all the momentum.
UMHB only added to that as the contest progressed, eventually resulting in a statement 50-20 victory in a rivalry game that likely decided the 2022 ASC title. After all, the winner of the prominent rivalry has claimed at least a share of the conference title every year since 1998.
“Both programs really know each other well,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said postgame. “You’re not worried about them knowing what you do. You just have to line up and execute it better than they can. We’ve been fortunate to be able to make that happen.”
With 4:34 in the second quarter, HSU quarterback Gaylon Glynn found wide receiver Kevi Evans wide open down the right sideline for a 74-yard score, taking back the lead, UMHB went to work…on both sides of the ball.
UMHB responded to the long Cowboys touchdown with one of their own, as a well-placed Kyle King pass fell right into the hands of Brandon Jordan, who leapt high, as he had done so many times previously in the year, and pulled down the pass from four-yards out, regaining the advantage for the visitors from Belton.
That 22-20 lead did not last long. Because the defense, which had struggled to contain the HSU rushing attack, shifted the momentum in a matter of seconds. On the Cowboys’ second play of the ensuing drive, linebacker Johnny Smith-Rider, the ASC’s leader in tackles for loss, jarred the ball loose as HSU’s Noah Garcia plowed upfield. Smith-Rider then hopped to his feet, gathering the bouncing football in the process, as he raced up the sideline and into the end zone.
Durand Hill then followed suit, as UMHB’s middle linebacker found himself as the center of yet another defensive scoring play on the following drive. Once again, the Cowboys failed to maintain possession, with Hill knocking the ball to the turf, before picking it up, and just as Smith-Rider did, he sprinted into the end zone, untouched.
“My defensive line set me up in a good position to scoop and score,” Hill said postgame. “In all honesty, we were just doing what we do.”
Between the 3:42 mark of the second quarter, to the 2:56 mark, UMHB put 21 points on the board, 14 off turnovers. In total, with the field goals that came from Omari Frazier’s interception to the HSU four-yard line, and Hill’s first fumble recovery of the night midway through the opening quarter, the Crusaders went to halftime with 20 of its 36 points coming on turnovers.
“[HSU head coach] Jesse [Burleson] made the comment that our team (UMHB) has no weaknesses anywhere, and what they’re going to do to us is take the ball away,” Harmon said. “For 10 minutes, every practice this week, we were stripping the ball, and it showed.”
That momentum carried into the second half, as the Crusaders opened the third quarter with a Kenneth Cormier four-yard rushing touchdown, before forcing an HSU punt on the Cowboys’ first possession. For a defense that had been critiqued in the three games prior, the intensity on that side of the ball was noteworthy, as the Cru shut out the nation’s No. 19 offense in the second half for the second straight year.
Hill proved to be a catalyst for UMHB’s consistent defensive presence, tallying eight tackles in addition to the previously-mentioned two fumble recoveries. But Harmon was not surprised. He felt that the sophomore linebacker had an exceptional feel for the game plan by Thursday of this past week, and was locked in for the challenge HSU presented.
“I told him that I thought he was going to make a statement tonight,” Harmon said of Hill. “He’s so athletic. He’s probably the next closest linebacker we’ve ever had athletically to Jerrell Freeman.”
Freeman went on to play in the NFL and was a two-time All-American for the Cru. Hill certainly had an All-American-caliber performance on Saturday night, as did Smith-Rider, who finished with a team-high nine tackles, and two forced fumbles.
“People know UMHB for our good defense,” Hill added. “The alumni have set the standard for us.”
The linebackers unit and defensive line combined to stonewall the HSU rushing attack, which was held to just 108 yards on the ground after the first drive of the game. On the Cowboys’ opening possession, runs of seven, 26, and 12 yards resulted in a quick first score. Then the Crusaders settled down, and executed.
“After the first quarter, we got those couple fumbles and settled in, and our defensive line really controlled the game,” Harmon said. “Maybe not the first six minutes of the first quarter, but after that I thought we got in control of everything and we knew where things were going.”
The play of both the offensive and defensive lines factored greatly into the end result. Offensively, though HSU’s red zone defense proved successful early on, keeping the Cru out of the end zone until King’s 44-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Day with 12:26 in the second, the Cowboys struggled in putting pressure on King. This gave the receivers time to create separation from the HSU defensive backs, factoring into King’s 337 passing yards.
“Our five offensive linemen are the same five that won the national championship last year,” Harmon noted. “So we have the potential to be really physical up front and they knew that [the HSU] defensive line is really physical.
“It was going to be whoever stepped up to the plate tonight, and I think that was where the game was won and lost. We were able to throw the ball and get some deep shots down the field because of protection, and I also thought we were able to run it.”
Running backs Aphonso Thomas and Cormier picked up 156 yards on the ground, putting their heads down at multiple points and pushing forward despite initial contact at the line.
“It was great to put the emphasis on the offensive line, and our two main backs,” Harmon said of the rushing attack. “They really did a great job running, Andy [Padron] did a great job of keeping those guys fresh. We needed them.”
After the victory, Harmon was as optimistic and complementary of his team’s performance as he has been all season, noting that improvement is necessary to push forwards. The ASC schedule is far from over, including road contests at ETBU and Howard Payne.
UMHB returns to Belton next weekend, hosting Austin College at 2 p.m. on Oct. 1.
|No. 5 UMHB||6||30||14||0||50|
|No. 6 HSU||6||14||0||0||20|