Avila’s game-winner lifts No. 3 UMHB to drama-filled 27-24 win at Howard Payne

BROWNWOOD, Texas- It has been said that the mark of a championship team is its ability to overcome the adversity inevitably thrown its way. 

If that is indeed true, No. 3 UMHB is destined for greatness in the postseason. 

Adversity came in large portions throughout Saturday’s ASC showdown between the Crusaders and Howard Payne. First it was a fumble called back and ruled an incomplete pass. Then an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the UMHB band, with HPU knocking on the door to the end zone with less than three minutes left. Don’t forget about Titus Dunk’s interception that was ripped out of his hands on the ground by HPU receiver Jordan Carroll and ruled a touchdown. 

Despite all of that, the Crusaders found a way to win, pulling out a 27-24 victory on a game-winning drive capped by a clutch 44-yard field goal from fifth-year senior Anthony Avila as time expired. The win qualified UMHB for the D-III football playoffs for the 18th straight season. 

“With the success and the type of program that we’ve had for the last 20 years, our kids just believe,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said on the Fox Sports Central Texas radio broadcast postgame. “They just believe they can make plays.”

The win puts UMHB in the D-III football playoffs for the 17th straight season, but in the immediate moments that followed Avila’s field goal, the final act in a drama-filled fourth quarter, the focus was on the championship mindset exhibited by one of the nation’s most esteemed programs. 

The drama of HPU’s game-tying drive

After holding HPU to a single field goal over the first 24 or so minutes of the second half, UMHB led 24-16 when the Yellow Jackets took possession, for quite possibly the final time. The UMHB defense had answered every bell, including when the offense posted four consecutive empty possessions in the first half, but HPU had one last ounce of hope left in the tank. 

The momentum seemed to shift in HPU’s direction with just over five minutes left on a 4th and 3 play just inside their own territory. Quarterback Landon McKinney’s helmet came off as he was hit hard running the ball on the previous play, meaning sophomore Tucker Bridwell was inserted for quite possibly the Yellow Jackets’ most crucial play of the game to that point. 

While it was the first snap Bridwell had taken in the contest, he sat in the pocket with confidence, completing a pass to standout Otis Lanier for a first down. Two plays later, with McKinney back under center, Carroll pulled in a 14-yard pass, pushing the ball past midfield. Then, on the 10th play of the drive, it was McKinney to running back Tauren Bradley in the middle of the field, as Bradley took the ball  down to the UMHB eight-yard line. 

That’s when the officiating crew made its presence known. 

A surprising unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the UMHB band set HPU up with an automatic first down on the four-yard line. But the Yellow Jackets did not move the ball on first or second down. On third down, McKinney lofted the ball high into the back right corner of the end zone, despite two Crusaders being in the vicinity. UMHB’s Dunk leapt high, pulling the football to the ground. Half a second later, Carroll got his hands on the football, and wrestled it away, to which, much to the amazement of the UMHB defense, was ruled a touchdown. McKinney and Co. converted on the two-point conversion, tying the score. 

“Our kids did a great job of overcoming Howard Payne and the referees,” Harmon noted on the postgame radio broadcast.

5 plays, 48 yards, in 31 seconds

If the controversial calls were on the mind of the UMHB offense as they took the field with 31 seconds remaining, they did not show it. Instead, all that was seen to an onlooker was confidence. UMHB quarterback Kyle King, in his first and last game against his former team, did not flinch. 

On first down, he raced 24 yards to midfield. Three straight completed passes followed, the last two to Jamaal Hamilton. And then the lights were on for Avila, whose legacy at UMHB had already been cemented with his game-winner over Hardin-Simmons three years ago. 

With his ever-consistent poise, the senior took two steps towards the ball before connecting on the kick. There was no doubt it was going in. 

“I’m just thankful for my teammates putting me in that position,” Avila said on the Fox Sports Central Texas radio broadcast. “And being able to come through and have their trust.” 

What led up the finish

To its credit, HPU did not stay in the game because of favorable officiating, though it certainly helped in their effort. The Yellow Jackets, who had led Hardin-Simmons 19-7 at halftime a week ago, opened the game with two obvious qualities: tempo and intensity. 

Carried by a superb offense that entered the game sixth in the country in points per game, HPU elected to receive the opening kickoff, and promptly marched 58 yards up the field on its first possession for a field goal. It was not until they crossed into opposing territory that the Yellow Jackets inserted a substitute. That was how quick HPU’s offense was moving. 

UMHB countered with a hint of tempo, scoring on Brandon Jordan’s seven-yard touchdown reception on the following drive. 

HPU regained the advantage with 5:23 left in the second quarter on the first of its two touchdowns, maintaining a quick tempo on offense the entire way. It kept UMHB’s defense on its toes, and limited the frequency at which the coaching staff could bring in fresh players. 

HPU’s solid defensive effort in the opening half held UMHB to just seven points and 142 yards of offense, but the momentum saw a clear shift before halftime even rolled around. After King was sacked for a 15-yard loss and UMHB was taken out of field goal range, the Cru elected to punt with 1:28 left in the second quarter. Sensing a chance to tack on an additional score, while holding a six-point lead, HPU’s offense stepped back onto the field with confidence. 

But that confidence soon turned to frustration, as UMHB’s Johnny Smith-Rider stepped in front of a pass and brought it up to the HPU 17-yard line. King found Jerry Day Jr. in the back of the end zone one play later, and instead of trailing 13-7 at halftime, UMHB led 14-13. 

From that point until the late HPU score, UMHB had a sense of control. Avila’s 24-yard field goal midway through quarter three extended the lead to four. After HPU responded with a field goal of its own, Kobe Giles came up with a one-handed interception at the 10:59 mark of the fourth. An Aphonso Thomas one-yard rushing touchdown put UMHB up 24-16, meaning all but 10 of the Cru’s points came as the result of forced turnovers.

There are some regular season games that inevitably get forgotten, or are tried to be forgotten, whether due to their dullness, or lackluster play. But Saturday’s game will be the opposite. In the games that are to follow, this win will be a point of reference, a message that despite the atmosphere, despite the officiating, despite struggles at times, UMHB will find a way. 

Up Next

UMHB, now 8-1 overall and 7-0 in ASC play, concludes the regular season on Nov. 12 against McMurry in Belton. 

3 comments

  1. You forgot the beginning of the game the announcer started it off with I love the Yellowjackets uniform. I am a UMHB Alumni and played sports there. I am also a USATF certificate official and when i have to officiate a home track meet (high school) my throwers know that I will call a foul on them if the step over the line . I am not THEIR COACH I AM THEIR OFFICIAL AND THEY ARE O.K WITH THAT. These officials on Sat SHOULD HAVE THEIR OFFICIATING LICENSE TAKEN AWAY UNLESS THEY AND HP HEAD COACH OR COACHING STAFF HAD IT ALL PLANNED OUT. We don’t know only God knows, However it should HP who was the BEST TEAM

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