Above photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON- The sleet and cold temperatures on Saturday afternoon at Crusader Stadium did not hold UMHB back in its 2022 playoff debut. Instead, the Crusaders made a statement, pulling off their first shutout of the season, dominating on both sides of the ball in a 54-0 victory.
“Our kids made plays at the right times,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said postgame. “We were able to get Huntingdon out of its normal mode.”
The victory sets up a rematch of last season’s first round matchup between UMHB and Trinity (TX), in San Antonio on Nov. 26. The Tigers, ranked No. 6 in the nation, held on for a 14-7 win over Hardin-Simmons on Saturday.
“We’re just going to be who we are,” Harmon said. “We’re not going to take anybody for granted. We feel like we have all the experience on our team to do this thing again.”
Two turnovers set the tone early
As Huntingdon running back Kahari McReynolds said it, the Hawks knew they needed to start fast to have a chance at upending the defending national champions.
“Coming out, fired up and ready to play, we knew what we had to do,” McReynolds, who had 99 rushing yards, said. “We knew we had to start fast.”
Huntingdon did just that, with McReynolds powering ahead for first downs on the Hawks’ first two plays from scrimmage. Landon Cotney then found Sebastian Verger for an 11-yard completion, moving the chains again. It was not until the fourth play of the drive, when Cotney picked up five yards on a run upfield, that UMHB’s defense forced a second down.
But the momentum shifted four plays later, when the ball was fumbled by Huntingdon on the UMHB 29-yard line. Mason Cavness recovered it for the Cru, and quarterback Kyle King and the offense went to work. A 30-yard completion to K.J. Miller, who led UMHB with 145 yards, was the first “big” play of the drive. Then Aphonso Thomas scored the game’s first touchdown with 8:07 in the opening quarter, taking a handoff as he sprinted behind blocks and into the end zone, virtually untouched.
It was the first of many notable plays for the Crusader offensive line, which paved the way for 289 rushing yards and 362 passing yards.
“I thought our offensive line played exceptional today,” King said. “I don’t believe I got touched at all in the pocket.”
Huntingdon sought to match UMHB’s first score, but hopes of a counter were erased when Cotney’s pass on the first play of the ensuing drive was intercepted by Durand Hill, who made a diving catch and secured the Cru’s second straight forced turnover.
“Huntingdon is very physical and I really believe they were the best first round matchup we’ve had in several years,” Harmon said. “In the playoffs, momentum can change on you pretty fast. They had some turnovers early that put them behind and made them get out of character with what they had to do.”
33 second-half points from UMHB
The offensive performance was outstanding, and despite playing against a team whose only loss entering the postseason was to Linfield, ranked No. 5, UMHB seemed unchallenged at times. Especially in the second half. The Crusaders did not let up after taking a 21-0 lead through two quarters.
Instead, the offense played better than ever, scoring touchdowns on five of its six second-half possessions. The lone punt came with 13 seconds left, when it was just a formality with the result having been decided well in advance.
King completed touchdown passes of 50 and 47 yards to Miller and Jamaal Hamilton, respectively, making the passing game appear seamless over the final two quarters. On both plays, he sat in the pocket patiently, behind the offensive line, before whipping the ball through the frigid air on target to the receiver. In both instances, the wideout was wide open.
“I think a lot of it was finding holes in our zone,” Huntingdon safety Miller Park said of UMHB’s offensive success. “I felt like we did a pretty good job covering two or three of them, and then we’d always leave one wide open that would hurt us.”
But King also displayed an ability to thread the needle, completing passes in tight space, where one, or at times, two Huntingdon defenders were within a step of the intended receiver. One of those plays came with 2:43 in the first quarter, when King stepped up and found Brandon Jordan in the end zone, getting the ball to the 6’6 receiver between two Huntingdon defensive backs, who were quickly closing in. The touchdown made Jordan the program’s all-time leader in career receiving touchdowns, with 30.
“Usually there’s four or five guys on the field who can take it for six,” King commented postgame.
He was completely accurate. Eight different players caught a pass in the win, with his four touchdown passes distributed amongst three receivers. Additionally, Kenneth Cormier Jr. had a pair of second half scores, which included a fourth-down conversion at the goal line, as the junior took the snap out of the wildcat formation, and put UMHB up 48-0 with 14:17 left to play.
The defense came away with its first shutout of the season
The performance of the defense went right along with the stellar showing from the offense. Despite repeated attempts to get into the end zone, Huntingdon failed to put points on the board, in large part due to the relentless aggression found throughout the Crusader defense.
Take for example the drive in which the Hawks got closest to a score, with the ball on the UMHB 10-yard line. Huntingdon had marched well into field goal range, and was looking for the end zone with 2:47 left in the third quarter, when Cotney found Michael Panariello for a short gain. But as Panariello looked in the direction of the goal line, UMHB’s Sante Parker Jr. came up from behind, jarring the football loose. Players from both teams clamored for the football, slipping and sliding on the wet turf in the process, before it rolled out of the back of the end zone, resulting in a touchback, as UMHB gained possession.
Huntingdon did not cross midfield at any point in the final quarter.
More than 20 minutes after the game ended, Hill, King, Harmon and Miller sat in front of the media in a postgame press conference. And Hill was asked if Huntingdon did anything that the Crusaders did not expect.
“No,” was the resounding answer.
“They manipulate gaps a lot,” Harmon added. “It creates a problem for a defense but it also makes you predictable with what you’re doing.”
The dedication to preparation, along with an unmatched fire from a senior class that is playing with its collegiate careers on the line, made Saturday’s contest very one-sided.
“I thought our seniors really took a big step,” Harmon said. “That continued through this past week. I’m really excited about our senior leadership and where we’re going.”
UMHB kicks off against Trinity at noon next Saturday in the second round of the playoffs.
UMHB Stat Leaders
Passing: Kyle King: 18-24, 364 yds, 4 TD
Rushing: Kenneth Miller Jr.: 7 carries, 91 yds, Montana Miller: 7 carries, 71 yds, Aphonso Thomas: 10 carries, 58 yds, 1 TD, Kenneth Cormier Jr.: 6 carries, 36 yds, 2 TD
Receiving: K.J. Miller: 6 receptions, 145 yds, 2 TD, Jamaal Hamilton: 4 receptions, 79 yds, 1 TD
Tackles: Chaka Watson (8), Durand Hill (7), Omari Frazier (5)