Above photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON, Texas- When two exceptional offenses meet, the better defense typically leads its team to victory.
That proved to be the pattern followed on Saturday afternoon at Crusader Stadium, where, in their first home game since Oct. 1, the fourth-ranked Crusaders forced three Sul Ross State turnovers, guided by a strong effort from the defensive line. The result was a 45-14 win for UMHB, with quarterback Kyle King also breaking the program’s career passing touchdown record.
“I’m excited with where we are,” King said postgame. “We’re moving in the right direction. We have an off week, then two more weeks to clean it up and roll on into the playoffs. We definitely still have some work ahead of us.”
Turnovers changed the momentum early
The tone of the game was set early, with consecutive forced turnovers from the UMHB defense, allowing the Crusaders a 10-0 advantage within the game’s first seven minutes. Though SRSU threw the ball 33 times in the contest, the Lobos ran the ball on the game’s first play from scrimmage, and it gave way to the first of five combined turnovers between the two opponents.
“With both offenses being so prolific,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said, “the turnovers were going to be the biggest part of it.”
UMHB linebacker Johnny Smith Rider forced a fumble, which Pete Smith quickly recovered on the SRSU 23-yard line. After an Anthony Avila 20-yard field goal that followed, the Lobos turned it over again on quarterback Trent Graves’ sixth passing attempt of the eight-play drive, as UMHB cornerback Dorian Williams leapt in front of a high-arcing pass near the SRSU sideline. He secured the interception, his first of the season, on the UMHB 17-yard line, leading to the Cru’s first touchdown drive.
“Our goal was to have turnovers every game, so forcing those turnovers boosted our confidence,” UMHB linebacker Durand Hill said postgame. “Giving the offense the ball back early is always awesome.”
SRSU turned the ball over three times in the game, producing 13 points for the Cru. And the Lobos capitalized on two interceptions from King, his first two of the year, reaching the end zone after forcing both turnovers.
“That just tells you how important turnovers are,” Harmon said, noting the points off turnovers for both teams. “In today’s football, that’s probably the biggest thing.”
King with another record-setting day
On that second drive, King took charge, running the ball 25 yards to the UMHB 45-yard line on a 3rd & 11 play that seemed to shift the momentum. Rather than taking the conservative approach and sliding when at least three Lobo defenders closed in, the senior lowered his shoulder, took a hit, and kept moving forwards. He completed his next four passes, with the final one going to Brandon Jordan for 17 yards and a score, giving UMHB its first double-digit lead of the contest.
He went on to throw touchdown passes of 57, four, and eight yards, in that order, breaking the program’s record for career touchdown passes, with 68. Factor in that King has been UMHB’s starter for just two full seasons, and played in only 24 career games for the Cru, and it becomes an even more impressive accomplishment.
“[Breaking the record] was never a thought in my mind,” King said, reflecting on the spring of 2021, when he was the backup at quarterback. “I had the mentality to help the team how I needed to, whether that be special teams, switching over defense or tight end, I just wanted to get on this green turf and play some football somehow.”
King’s connection with Jerry Day Jr. was a major storyline throughout the game, as Day accumulated seven receptions for 150 yards, hauling in the eight-yard touchdown pass that broke the record early in the third quarter. He also had a 57-yard touchdown catch worthy of mention, as he pulled down the pass on the UMHB 32-yard line, before crossing the entire field horizontally with several Lobo defensive backs in quick pursuit. His speed won out, however, as he turned the corner near the UMHB sideline and raced into the end zone for a 24-7 lead with 8:18 in the second quarter.
“I’m happy for him,” King said of Day. “He had a little bit of a rough game at TLU. He wasn’t happy with his performance, but he’s the kind of guy that he’s going to grind and get back to it. He came out and bailed me out twice today.”
King said that getting the record was “surreal”, but in the success, he did not overlook the two interceptions.
“I guarantee you, he will study this film tomorrow harder than probably any of us,” Harmon noted. “We’re very fortunate to have Kyle King.”
“It’s a surreal thing, but I’m also not super happy with my performance today,” King added. “It’s kind of an up and a down at the same time. Obviously, I wish I could have played better. I didn’t take care of the ball very well. But we got a good team win. The defense played great.”
Defensive line made its presence known
The league’s leader in passing attempts coming into the contest, SRSU provided a quality test for the Crusader defense. A test UMHB passed, specifically the defensive line, as Graves was constantly being pressured in the backfield. He had little time to throw, especially when the Lobos marched into UMHB territory and the Cru tightened up on their defensive effort. UMHB tallied three sacks in the first half alone.
“The D-Line made the secondary and our coverages work. They constantly got pressure on the quarterback, and made him nervous,” Harmon said. “Then he was kind of double-pumping and looking around, and looking to run a little bit more than throw downfield.”
That was no more evident than on SRSU’s third drive of the first quarter, when the Lobos elected to keep the offense on the field for a 4th & 2 play from the UMHB 26-yard line. Graves backpedaled upon receiving the snap, and rushed a throw, but Hill deflected the pass as he raced into the backfield, picking up a turnover on downs.
“I feel like we came out strong,” Hill said. “We knew they wanted to get the ball in the air so our defensive line did an amazing job getting to the quarterback. Our secondary did a great job holding up. Between the D-line and the secondary, they played awesome.”
Freshmen defensive ends Dorian Pittman and Myles Terry both stepped up, contributing to the defensive effort, especially on passing downs. Terry came up with an impressive sack on a third down play midway through the second quarter and Pittman came up with a key pass breakup, along with one tackle and a quarterback hit.
“Myles Terry and Dorian Pittman are both incredibly talented physically and are starting to get a little confidence,” Harmon noted. “We just need to keep bringing them along and we’re going to be fine.”
Harmon, UMHB’s longtime defensive coordinator before taking over as head coach, exuded a sense of pride in the performance of the defensive line. But make no mistake, there is still plenty for that unit to improve on.
“They took a big step this week, but there’s still a lot more to go,” Harmon said of the defensive line. “They’re not where we need them to be to win a national championship. But we’re going to work at it to get them there.”
UMHB has its first bye week of the season next weekend, before resuming ASC play at Howard Payne on Nov. 5.