Coming to Belton on Saturday is Bethel University, a team ranked No. 13 in the nation, riding a wave of momentum after back-to-back playoff road wins, including a 30-13 result at Linfield last Saturday. It is easily the toughest opponent UMHB has faced at Crusader Stadium this season.
“We’re going to have to be very prepared to play the best game we’ve played this year in order to advance,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said Monday.
This marks UMHB’s fifth straight season playing in the D-III quarterfinals, and in those contests, the Crusaders are 4-1. Ahead of the matchup, and less than 48 hours after taking down No. 6 Trinity on the road, Harmon met with the media at his weekly press conference on Monday. Here are three takeaways from that meeting with the press.
New matchup, same system
In each of UMHB’s previous two matchups in these playoffs, the opponent has been a familiar one, with the Cru having faced Huntingdon in 2019, and Trinity in 2021. But Bethel is a different story. Not once in program history has the Crusaders battled the Royals, one of the best teams in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, despite the fact that Bethel has reached the postseason on 11 occasions since 2000.
Naturally, that raises questions as to how UMHB will prepare, considering there is no prior experience for the coaching staff to go on. Harmon mentioned that there is not anything in particular done when facing an opponent for the first time, as “every game plan is different.”
“You just work the problem,” Harmon said. “Every game plan is different. You have to work the formations, work the defensive sets and fronts, and develop your plan. Sometimes it’s to your advantage to play someone new. You might not know them, but they don’t know you either.”
An overlooked opponent?
Bethel is in the playoffs for the second straight year, the fourth time in program history that has happened. But the Royals got in via an at-large bid, as St. John’s won the MIAC championship, 28-10. With two regular season losses, there was a certain amount of doubt entering the postseason as to Bethel’s playoff outlook. But the Royals have proven the doubters wrong, picking up a 34-32 win at Wheaton in round one, before handing Linfield its third home loss since 2011, in a 30-13 victory in the second round last Saturday. In the second-round win, Bethel shut out a strong Linfield offense for the entirety of the second half.
“I think people have overlooked them,” Harmon said. “I don’t think people give them credit for being as athletic as they are. The film that I’ve watched from Linfield, there’s no question who the better team was. [They’re] well-coached. They’re coming out of a great league.”
He also mentioned the offensive prowess of quarterback Jaran Roste, a Gagliardi Trophy semifinalist, and Bethel’s top two receivers: Micah Niewald and Joey Kidder. Both are within 60 yards of reaching 1000+ receiving yards this season, an impressive feat. Of mention, Bethel also ranks No. 12 in the nation in third-down conversion percentage, picking up first downs on roughly half (49.7%) of its third-down plays.
“They have two receivers who are just under 1000 yards, and a quarterback who looks like Cam Newton and throws like Patrick Mahomes,” Harmon added. “He can look one way and throw the other, right on target. They’re very talented, and it’s amazing people didn’t expect them to get this far, because they’re a very good football team.”
“You can’t play timid”
Less than two minutes into the fourth quarter of Saturday’s second-round win, Harmon called for a fake punt, with the ball on the Trinity 34-yard line, facing a 4th & 9. Rather than the snap going to punter Kyle King, Montana Miller, set up as one of the blockers, took the snap. But Trinity was all over it, tackling Miller for a three-yard loss. It led to Tucker Horn’s passing touchdown, which cut the UMHB lead to seven, and Harmon said Monday that he felt the play-calling became more conservative following the lack of success on the fake punt. That is something he hopes will change when the Crusaders take on Bethel.
“I hope we can do a better job of getting the ball to our playmakers. It’s my fault. I went for it on fourth down and we weren’t successful and for the next three minutes after that, both sides of the ball were pretty conservative. And that’s because of a decision I made that made everybody go ‘Woah, this might be a closer game than what we thought it would be.’
“For those guys to end up trying to get back into attacking, taking shots and getting the ball to our playmakers, is what I’m looking for. I don’t want us to be worried about, ‘You can’t have a mistake, you can’t have a fumble, you can’t have an interception.’
“You can’t play timid. You have to be loose and free and do what we do, which is take what the defense gives us. If they drop eight, and give us the run, we’re going to run it. If they’re going to load the box, we’re going to throw it. I still think offensively that we have so many weapons that we’re very difficult.”
UMHB kicks off against Bethel at noon central time on Saturday at Crusader Stadium. For more information on the matchup, stay tuned for Thursday’s game preview.