Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON- You would have to go back to 2015 to find the last time UMHB was sent on the road within the first two rounds of the playoffs. The last time the Crusaders played away from Belton in the second round, it was 2009.
That will change on Saturday, as UMHB will be in San Antonio, coming off a 54-0 shutout of Huntingdon in what was the largest margin of victory in the first round of the postseason. The Crusaders’ opponent will be Trinity (TX), the SAA champion, who has not been beaten yet, after surviving in a defense-dominated 14-7 victory over Hardin-Simmons last Saturday. The Tigers are No. 6 in the nation, and UMHB enters the matchup ranked No. 3.
“Trinity is very disciplined, very experienced, very well-coached,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said Monday. “They’re 11-0 for a reason. We’re going to have to play our best level of football to go down there and get a win.”
That will indeed be the case, as Trinity has won its last 13 games played at home.
With the Huntingdon win fresh, but preparation for the second round well underway, Harmon met with the media on Monday to discuss the upcoming matchup, a rematch of UMHB’s first-round duel in 2021. Here are three takeaways from his press conference.
Looking back on last year’s win over the Tigers
A year ago, almost a week to the day, UMHB was challenged in its first-round matchup against Trinity, facing the Tigers for the first time in nine seasons. Trinity had been a quality team in region three all season, winning the SAA title in a dramatic, 28-27 win over Birmingham-Southern on the final day of the regular season. But the Crusaders struggled at times offensively, as Trinity’s defense put up a strong performance, with UMHB holding a narrow 6-3 advantage until the 3:14 mark of the fourth quarter, when Aphonso Thomas ran for a touchdown that put the game out of reach.
Harmon was asked if his seniors and upperclassmen are eager for another battle with Trinity in particular, considering last year’s result.
“I think they’re excited to have a chance in the second round against a good team,” Harmon said. “We all feel the score last year was sort of closer than what the game was, so we obviously think we can move the ball better than what we did last year. But there’s no feeling of disappointment, like we didn’t get the job done. We beat a good team in Trinity, made a good run in the playoffs, and won the national championship. I think the Trinity game definitely was the cornerstone of us making a run and winning the national championship.”
Harmon added that the competitive environment during that game in Belton last year, and the fact that it was not along the same line as UMHB’s previous one-sided victories was a “wake up” for the Crusaders.
“We were kind of in that mode of, ‘We’re playing a team from another conference that we haven’t lost to in a long time,’” Harmon said. “Trinity played us really tough. It made us realize, everybody in this tournament is good. If you think you’re too good and don’t have to prepare, you have a chance of getting beat. It made us focus and go to work, and it was definitely a cornerstone for us to go win the national championship.”
UMHB and Trinity: More same than different
Trinity and UMHB are each made up of the same core players who factored greatly into that first-round playoff result a year ago. Quarterbacks Tucker Horn (TU) and Kyle King (UMHB) have led their respective offenses, and Caleb Harmel (TU) and Tommy Bowden (UMHB) are back on the defenses. UMHB’s defense did lose its top six tacklers from last season’s meeting, but young standouts such as Johnny Smith-Rider and Durand Hill have stepped up.
Harmon noted this, mentioning that while each team has a few new contributors and slight changes in scheme, UMHB will be battling a relatively similar Trinity team this time around.
“Each year every team is different. You can tell on film that they’re a little different. The philosophy is going to be the same. Their general base defense and offensive formations are all the same, but there’s always tweaking. Even though we played them last year in the playoffs, both teams are a little different than what they were last year, so there’s some adjustments that both sides are going to have to do.”
The two opponents, though different in the details of their offenses and defenses, share a number of similarities in their approach to all facets of the game, Harmon said. Which explains why these two teams were ranked in the D3football.com Top 10 for the entirety of this season, and are two of just 16 teams left standing in the postseason.
“I think they’re very sound on defense. They have great linebackers. When they line up, they’re never outnumbered anywhere. They tackle well and don’t give up big plays. Their offense is efficient. They take what the defense gives them, but they’re not afraid to punt. They’re not going to beat themselves. You can see some similarities in philosophies, no question about that.”
Offensive line is the “gem” of UMHB’s offense
Four different running backs saw significant action for the Cru in Saturday’s win, and by using all four, the rushing attack has been consistent, going for 298 yards in the first round. That will be especially key against Trinity, considering having a strong presence on the ground can open opportunities for the passing game to find success downfield.
“I think we have four tailbacks who could start at just about any other D-III program,” Harmon said. “None of them have gaudy stats because we run them all. The leading rusher on Saturday was a kid who didn’t get in until the third quarter.”
He added that the rushing attack is a product of the talented offensive line, which has been exceptional in both pass protection and on running plays, overpowering opposing defensive lines throughout the season.
“It’s a credit to our o-line. Everybody kind of forgets about the unsung heroes, but we have the same five from last year’s national championship game. They’re very talented, unselfish, they’re the heartbeat of our team. They had a phenomenal game last week.
“We do have talented running backs, we have talent at quarterback and receiver, but the biggest gem of our offense is our o-line.”
UMHB kicks off against Trinity at noon on Nov. 26.