Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON- After two games on the road, UMHB returns to Belton on Saturday, battling Sul Ross State (2-4, 2-2 ASC). And it figures to be a quality test for the Crusaders, ranked No. 4 in the country, who will be playing for the eighth consecutive weekend.
UMHB head coach Larry Harmon met with the media on Monday at his weekly news conference, discussing a couple of the breakout performers from Saturday’s win at Texas Lutheran, as well as what to expect from SRSU and the matchup between the Lobo offense and the Cru defense. Here are three main takeaways:
What Sul Ross State brings to Belton
Preseason expectations can be deceiving. SRSU was picked to finish No. 8 in the ASC’s Preseason Poll, released back in August. In other words, the Lobos were not expected to build much on last year’s 2-7 season. With an interim head coach in Barry Derickson, there were questions as to how the team would fare under the direction of a new leader.
It is safe to say at this point that those questions have been answered, particularly on offense. Just two teams have scored 30 or more points against Hardin-Simmons this season: UMHB and SRSU. The Lobos were on bye last week, but took on the 10th-ranked Cowboys in Week 6, and fell 70-35 in a game that was close for much of the first half. They enter Saturday’s contest as the fourth highest-scoring team in the conference, at 30.2 points per game.
“It’s going to be a big test for us,” Harmon said. “They have a new revamped offense. They have all kinds of weapons now with some junior college kids and some [transfer] portal kids. They really improved their skill set on offense. The secondary has to do their part, we have to make sure we’re sharp with our coverages, but it’s going to come down to pressure on the quarterback.”
Trent Graves started the last two games at quarterback, and has played in all six contests this season. The sophomore from Golden, Colorado has completed 53 percent of his passes for 619 yards, including 251 against HSU. However, T.J. DeShields is also a possibility at the quarterback position, though he did not play in SRSU’s last two games. The University of Akron (D-I) transfer was incredibly sharp in four contests, throwing for 1,168 yards, with 12 touchdowns and zero interceptions. In fact, DeShields ranks No. 2 in the conference in yards per game (292.0), behind HPU’s Landon McKinney.
“A lot of people are playing just a three-man front, and their quarterback hasn’t had any pressure on him,” Harmon added. “He’s really good too, like Kyle. If you let him have time to throw and he doesn’t feel any pressure, he’s going to find the open guy. You can’t cover everybody for four or five seconds.
“For us, we’re going to try to stay in a four-man front, mix up some blitz packages, challenge that quarterback and try to make him uncomfortable.”
Seizing the moment
Matthew Jackson’s 95-yard punt return for a touchdown ended up as an ASC record, and Trey Belyeu-Witcher’s 5.0 tackles for loss were critical to UMHB’s defensive performance against TLU.
Though Jackson and Witcher found success in different areas of the game, both shared one similarity: they took advantage of the opportunity when it was presented. Both were named to this week’s D3football.com Team of the Week.
“Matt really came on last spring,” Harmon said. “He worked himself up to be a role player on varsity. He was on JV last season. This past spring, he had a great spring and built himself up to where he’s a guy we’re counting on.”
He noted that typically UMHB’s returners are instructed not to catch a punt inside the 10-yard line, out of concern for poor starting field position, but the situation just happened to play out where Jackson caught the ball at the five, and had blockers up the sideline as he raced away from TLU and into the end zone.
”We don’t want to be catching punts inside the 10-yard line, but the wind caught it, and he wasn’t quite familiar with where he was on the field,” Harmon noted. “It was very well-executed. He saw that it was set-up, and took it, and made a great play for our team.”
Of Witcher’s successful showing, with eight tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble, Harmon said he was glad to see the San Antonio native continue making strides in his development.
“Defensive end, that’s where we graduated everybody last year. So if it seems like somebody is stepping up every week, that’s because we’re just putting those guys in the fire every single week and seeing who our guys are going to be.
“Trey did a great job this past week of stepping up and making some plays. He’s trying to solidify himself as the starter with Sante Parker, and that’s what he needs to do. It was nice to see [his performance on Saturday] and he’s taken some accountability for his game readiness.”
Playoff preparation starts with playing a complete game
Playing a complete game continues to be a work in progress for the Crusaders, who came out strong in the first half in Seguin, scoring 35 points, but were inconsistent at times as the second half played out.
When asked about areas in which he is looking for improvement entering the final three games of the regular season and into the postseason, Harmon immediately mentioned the “killer mentality” that comes with finishing games as well as they are started.
“I think we still have some football 101 stuff that we need to be sharper on than what we are right now,” Harmon replied. “I’d like to see us with that killer mentality of, ‘We’re going to play a complete game.’
“Saturday we played the best first half that we’d played since Hardin-Simmons, but then we went into chill mode the whole second half and didn’t play up to our potential. When you don’t play to your potential, there’s always a little negative taste in your mouth and everybody feels it.
“Our challenge this week is to practice like we’ve been practicing, but we want to walk away Saturday with a good taste in our mouth feeling like we played a complete game and knowing that we’re ready to make a run in the playoffs.”