Photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON- UMHB is officially a playoff team. Not that there was any question as to if the Cru, the defending national champions, would make the playoffs or not. Just the same, UMHB had to lock in its automatic bid to the postseason this past Saturday afternoon against Howard Payne. And that is exactly what the Crusaders did, winning 27-24.
The regular season is not over just yet. One week remains, as UMHB returns home for the final time in the regular season, hosting McMurry on senior day this coming Saturday. Much of the conversation at head coach Larry Harmon’s press conference on Monday was not in relation to the regular season finale, but rather the competitive game the Cru played in its final regular season road contest a week ago.
So here are three takeaways from Harmon’s Nov. 7 press conference, as UMHB eyes another deep playoff run.
Avila has regained his rhythm in 2022
Kicker Anthony Avila had perhaps the play of the game in Saturday’s win, kicking a 44-yard field goal as time expired, giving UMHB a much-needed 27-24 win that clinched the Cru’s spot in the NCAA playoffs. It was Avila’s second game-winning kick, with many UMHB fans remembering his 43-yarder to beat Hardin-Simmons in 2019. In both 2020-21 and 2021, Avila struggled at times with inconsistency. But he has been nearly perfect as a fifth-year senior this season, with nine field goals on 10 attempts. With the game on the line against HPU, he connected on his furthest field goal of the season so far.
“He’s a tremendous kid, and an incredible human being,” Harmon said of Avila. ”He had surgery so all of last year, he was trying to get back into form. It’s a credit to Anthony, how hard he worked to come back this year and prove that he’s an All-American-type kicker.”
As far as the officiating on HPU’s final drive?
Howard Payne’s game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter did not come without two questionable calls. The first, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the UMHB band, which moved HPU into a first and goal situation from the four-yard line. Two plays later, UMHB appeared to have tallied an interception in the back corner of the end zone on Landon McKinney’s high pass to Jordan Carroll. But Carroll wrestled the ball away, and despite a previous signal that an interception had been made, the officials ruled the play a touchdown. The Yellow Jackets tied the game on the two-point conversion that followed, leading to Avila’s game-winning field goal.
Harmon was asked about both instances early in the press conference.
“The first one on the band, they had told me during the first quarter that they needed my help to quiet the band while they were playing,” Harmon said, noting that he initially objected, considering he was in the middle of coaching a competitive game. “It’s kind of shocking that they waited all the way until that moment in the fourth quarter to call that penalty again. But they did warn me. I should’ve found somebody to talk to the band and make sure that we had given the referees assistance.
”As far as the controversial call (on the touchdown in the end zone), there isn’t any controversy. We intercepted the ball, they blew the whistle dead and the referee in the back of the end zone waved her hands that it was dead, then all of a sudden she gave [the touchdown] to Howard Payne. It’s one of those really botched calls that made us go into a situation where we were tied and had to win the game at the end.”
As far as the response from the offense, marching 48 yards in five plays to set up the game-winning field goal:
“You have to control what you can control in that moment. We weren’t getting the call changed, so we had to bow our necks and go do what we do. It’s as simple as that. We have a lot of senior leadership on the offensive side of the ball and they did a great job, Coach Padron did a great job, of getting us down there and getting us in position for Anthony to kick the field goal.”
Having a late bye week is just another hurdle the Cru has overcome this season
Harmon was asked if due to the Cru’s challenging start to the schedule, facing three Top-15 opponents in the span of four weeks, he felt his team take its foot off the accelerator a little bit by this point in the regular season.
But according to Harmon, effort was not the problem. Rather, Saturday’s showing at Howard Payne, against a team that entered 6-1 in ASC play, was affected by the late bye week, as UMHB had to find its rhythm after 14 days between games. Plus, in a deep conference like the ASC, not every win is going to come by double-digits.
“The feeling I had was what you do when you get a bye week this late in the season,” Harmon said. “Any change to kids’ routines in Week 8 or Week 9 of the season is a big deal.
“The bottom line is that we really had to fight our tails off to come away with a win. That’s a credit to Howard Payne and Coach [Jason] Bachtel. We’re spoiled a little bit in that we’re used to winning games by large margins, so when you have a close game, it’s kind of fun to have the expectation that everybody is calling, wondering if the Titanic is sinking.
“Our kids competed really hard and found a way to get the win. The important question is where do we go from here? How much improvement will there be from last week to this week? We’ll find out on Saturday.”