Above photo by William Roberts/True To The Cru/@c1osenszn
BELTON- No longer are there questions as to “if” UMHB will beat Hardin-Simmons in this year’s annual meeting. The Crusaders already did.
On Saturday night beneath the lights in Abilene, the Cru, now No. 4 in the nation, came away with a 50-20 victory that turned some heads across the nation, considering HSU entered the game ranked No. 6, and was playing at home.
The team certainly celebrated the rivalry game victory, but this is by no means the mountaintop for a program striving to be No. 1 by the season’s end.
“They know exactly where they want to go, and where they are right now,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said at Monday’s press conference. “There’s a gap that we need to close and that’s what we need to use each week to prepare for our opponents.”
They will work on closing that gap even more on Saturday afternoon in Belton, when they host Austin College (0-3, 0-1 ASC). But before that contest, here are three takeaways from Harmon’s weekly press conference with the local media, taking one last look back on the win over HSU.
Avoiding a letdown…
Coming off the massively-hyped Top 10 matchup over Hardin-Simmons, and entering Saturday’s home duel with Austin College, Harmon was asked if has any concern about a “letdown” of some sort. This is considering the ‘Roos are winless on the year, and have scored just 21 points total this season. UMHB won last year’s meeting in Sherman by a score of 56-0, and have won the last seven meetings, with the smallest margin of victory having been 17 points.
“We have to concentrate on us,” Harmon said. “It’s all going to come down to fundamentals, tackling, technique, where our eyes are; all those little things that you have to do. Our preparation is not going to change.”
He added that his team goes into “every game expecting to win”, and that is the same mentality that former head coach Pete Fredenburg also spoke of for many years, making the point that regardless of the opponent, the drive for victory is always present.
“To win this thing wasn’t some big, huge celebration,” he noted of the HSU win. “Yesterday, we came in. Our kids knew that there would be a lot of critiques, a lot of mistakes corrected. We just went to work.”
Paced by Smith-Rider and Hill, UMHB linebackers have seen hard work pay off already
One of the major keys to Saturday’s win was the play of UMHB’s linebackers, particularly Durand Hill and ASC Defensive Player of the Week Johnny Smith-Rider. The duo led the Cru in tackles; Smith-Rider with 10, and Hill with eight, while also each returning a fumble for a touchdown. The second-quarter “scoop and score” plays marked the fifth time in program history that UMHB has returned two fumbles for a touchdown in a single game.
Entering the season, there were certainly question marks as to how UMHB would replace All-American-caliber linebackers in Akeem Jackson, Mikkah Hackett, and Jacob Mueller. Filling those shoes has not been easy, but Smith-Rider, Hill, along with others such as Chaise Ellis, and La’Damian Bailey, have continued making significant strides through the first month of the season.
“They’re making progress and they’re working incredibly hard,” Harmon noted. “They want to be really good, and take it personal when they don’t play to their potential.”
He mentioned he has been especially proud of the mental fortitude that unit has shown, learning from miscues in prior games, and applying them each week, building on every performance.
“The mental toughness that our kids have is pretty remarkable because they had three weeks of not really playing up to the standard of a Mary Hardin-Baylor linebacker. Nobody folded. Nobody put their head down and said ‘I can’t do it.’ All we did was accept the accountability that we had to be better.”
With that attitude towards things, they attacked the game plan and remained locked in throughout this past week, Harmon mentioned during Saturday night’s postgame interview. He affirmed that fact on Monday.
“I had a feeling after our week of work that we were going to take a big step,” he said. “I’m excited to see what happens this week because all that’s going to do is build confidence.”
“Championship-caliber” games are won on the line of scrimmage
Matt Sanders earned the UMHB coaching staff’s game ball this week, a high honor on an offense with the talent the Cru possesses on that side of the ball. Far too often, the play of the offensive linemen can be overlooked, especially when the blocking is done correctly, as it was against HSU. But Harmon’s philosophy is just the opposite.
“Anytime you’re in a championship-caliber type of ballgame, whoever controls the line of scrimmage has the upper hand,” Harmon said. “We felt like we were more physical because of our offensive line, and our defensive line.
“And our O-line, it wasn’t just the holes they opened up in the run game. Kyle [King] had all day to throw. We threw a lot of deep digs on them, took advantage of some middle openings that were 17, 18 yards down the field. It takes a while to get routes down there, and Kyle had all day. It was like 7-on-7 for Kyle. We thought they did a great job of picking up all the different stunts that Hardin-Simmons was running at us.”
On Sanders specifically…
“Matt is the brains of the organization up there, and he has to be able to communicate and get everybody working together.”
UMHB heads into its homecoming contest against Austin College ranked No. 3 by the American Football Coaches Association, and No. 4 by D3football.com. Saturday’s matchup kicks off at 2 p.m. at Crusader Stadium.