Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON- You have to go back to 2018 to find the last time UMHB played consecutive road games during the regular season. In those mid-October contests against Howard Payne and Belhaven, the Cru outscored its opponents, 104-0. Now, three seasons and two national titles later, UMHB will be looking for consecutive road victories once again.
Last Saturday, the fourth-ranked Crusaders visited ETBU in a 24-7 win, moving to 4-0 in ASC play. This weekend, the opponent is Texas Lutheran, a program that is coming off back-to-back road victories.
“I think our away record speaks for itself,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said Monday. “Our guys like to travel and they play well on the road.”
Since 2016, UMHB’s lone road loss in the regular season is to Wisconsin-Whitewater, earlier this year, and as the record shows, the Cru has remained consistent whether in the friendly confines of Crusader Stadium or a more unfamiliar setting.
With Saturday’s win still fresh in the mind, and the focus now shifted towards the duel with TLU, Harmon met with the media on Monday. Here are three takeaways from his Oct. 11 press conference.
The message Harmon delivered to the team in regards to competitive maturity and leadership was taken to heart
At last week’s press conference, Harmon mentioned that the coaching staff was looking for an increased level of leadership and competitive maturity from the team heading into Saturday’s matchup.
In the two previous games, costly penalties had hurt the Cru at various points. But not against ETBU.
“We had two penalties on the day, so we really reduced that. I think the guys really responded to [the message],” Harmon noted.
“When they look back at the 2018 national championship team, and the 2021 national championship team, they realize that it was a player-led team. That the unity council did a great job of getting everybody on the same page and kept everybody held to that high standard. When you make a mistake, like we did against Austin College, it was nice to see that we learned from it and grew from it.”
One of the shining qualities of this year’s team is the experience found on the roster, in veteran starters such as Kyle King, K.J. Miller, Jeffrey Sims Jr., and Sante Parker Jr., who can aid in that development from week-to-week, especially with some inexperience still in the rotation.
“You can’t replace it,” Harmon said of veteran leadership. “You can’t coach experience. They can feel it, they trust themselves already, they already have confidence. Earlier in the year, we were having to see us do it first.
“I’m not saying we’re completely out of that stage yet, but it was nice to see guys make plays Saturday, and that’s only going to make our confidence build.”
Defensive performance against the Tigers was notable
On first impression, the defensive intensity was noticeable, the tackles textbook-like, and overall, a business-style approach to the contest. UMHB stopped ETBU’s rushing attack, and limited the passing game, outside of a couple of second-half plays, to screen passes and short routes. The Tigers ended up with 222 yards of total offense, 118 shy of their season average entering the matchup.
“I think Coach Johnson, Coach Carey, Coach Brace, and Coach Jones all did a great job this week of getting the game plan together and getting it taught to the kids,” Harmon said.
“I credit the leadership on our defense. I thought Pete Smith, Sante Parker, and Titus Dunk really picked up their leadership. When you make plays, it’s contagious. We made some plays early and everybody wanted to be a part of it. It’s what we should do. It’s what we’ve always done. We’ve always been able to play solid defense and make things happen.”
Tristan Green had one of the game’s more memorable defensive plays, stepping in front of a short pass intended for the ETBU running back, and pulling in an interception. To make it even better, the native of Gladewater, Texas, just 35 miles from Marshall, tallied his first career interception in front of friends and family.
Harmon was asked about Green’s performance, which also included two tackles, especially considering he did not play at all against Austin College.
“Tristan is one of our best players,” Harmon said. “He just loves to play. He’s kind of like that thoroughbred racehorse. You pull him out of one race and you race him the next week. They’re just eager to run fast.”
TLU has been noticeably improving every week
The Bulldogs may enter Saturday’s matchup with a 2-3 overall record, and just 1-2 in conference play, but do not let that fool you. TLU opened its season against Howard Payne, falling in an offensive shootout by a respectable 59-45 margin. They then faced No. 5 Trinity (TX) on the road, and were challenged in a 14-point loss to a rapidly-improving Sul Ross State team at the end of September. Since then, TLU has won its last two in games against North American University and Austin College. The point being that their first month of the season was incredibly tough, and as Harmon noted, they have made noticeable strides each week.
“Like us, I think they have really improved from week one to where they are now,” he said. “Each week, they’re getting better by large amounts. Across their team, they’re gaining confidence and really improving big-time.”
The TLU offense is fourth in scoring in the ASC, just behind conference title contenders UMHB, Howard Payne, and Hardin-Simmons, averaging 31 points per game. Led by senior quarterback Seth Cosme, the Bulldogs average 380.2 yards per game, and have a balanced attack, ranking fourth in the ASC in passing yards per game, and fifth in rushing.
Though the defensive numbers are not exceptional, in large part due to games against the offenses of HPU and Trinity, the Bulldogs compete well on both sides of the ball. First downs do not come easily, as TLU has allowed the fourth-fewest first downs per game in the conference (20.0).
“They play incredibly hard,” Harmon added. “Neil LaHue is a great coach. In ‘19 he was the offensive coordinator there and had a great game plan against us. Their kids are going to be very well-prepared, they’re physical, they’ll fight you till the very end. They don’t make many mistakes. You have to beat them; they’re not going to beat themselves.”