BELTON-Make no mistake about it. UMHB is a fourth-quarter team.
The Crusaders entered the final 14 minutes of Saturday’s quarterfinal duel against Bethel trailing 28-17. But looking at the 41-28 final score, you would never know it.
The home crowd came alive, the defense got into the backfield, and the offense clicked with remarkable ease, almost as if a switch had been flipped. And suddenly, UMHB’s continuous struggle for the lead for three quarters turned into an insurmountable deficit for Bethel.
“I told the guys before the game, teams that are going to win a national championship find ways to win,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said postgame. “I thought our kids did that today. Our guys dug down deep.”
39 seconds into the fourth quarter, Bethel took a 28-17 lead on Joey Kidder’s leaping nine-yard catch in the end zone. But there was no blame cast amongst the team; the only thing present on the UMHB sideline was a will to win and desire to close the gap.
“Nobody was pointing fingers,” Harmon said. “Against Trinity, we lost the momentum a little bit and there were some negative comments being made. There was none of that today. Everybody was so positive.”
That poise paid dividends for the Crusaders, as Kyle King found KJ Miller for a 65-yard touchdown pass on the opening play of the ensuing drive in an electrifying play. Miller sprinted down the sideline as such a speed that Bethel’s safety, playing deep downfield, could not catch him. A critical defensive stop followed, forcing a punt, and Kenneth Cormier took the lead for UMHB on his 12-yard rushing score that capped a five-play, 50-yard drive.
The day only got better for the Crusaders, with Titus Dunk intercepting a short pass on 3rd & 3, setting up Aphonso Thomas for a 26-yard touchdown. In the span of nine minutes, UMHB went from trailing by 11 to leading by 10.
“I was just trying to keep everybody’s head up,” King said postgame. “When [Bethel] caught that touchdown, it was a little bit defeating. That’s human nature. But you have to bounce back and realize there’s 15 minutes left to play. That’s what we did.”
The victory earns UMHB a spot in the national semifinals on Dec. 10 and a rematch of the 2021 Stagg Bowl against North Central, the nation’s No. 1 team. The game kicks off at 2:30 pm CT in Naperville, Illinois.
Turnovers highlighted the first quarter
Turnovers were the story of the first quarter, leading to Bethel’s touchdown at the 3:46 mark, the only scoring play in the game’s first 15 minutes. UMHB’s first drive came to an abrupt close after picking up yardage and momentum in the opening minutes, as BU’s Matthew Feldick jumped in front of King’s second pass of the game, intercepting it on the BU 45-yard line.
But the Royals did not capitalize, instead punting after just three plays as the UMHB defense countered. The first several drives for both teams were a mix of reliance on the rushing attack and short passes, with neither testing the opposing secondary on deep passes in a somewhat conservative state.
But both defenses proved that patience is an overlooked virtue. Because as Bethel slowly went more and more to the passing game, UMHB seized an opportunity for a takeaway, with Durand Hill diving in front of a short pass on the first play of BU’s third drive for an interception.
And then it was BU’s turn to counter, as the Royal defense forced a Jamaal Hamilton fumble on the very next play, as the receiver turned after making the catch, looking to extend the gain.
It was that turnover that produced the first points for BU, as the Royals went 38 yards in seven plays, crossing the goal line on the second of consecutive carries by David Geebli.
In fact, three of the first half’s four touchdowns came on the ground, with Cormier countering Geebli’s touchdown with one of his own from 16 yards out, and Thomas breaking four tackles on a 17-yard run to the end zone. UMHB’s 14 second-quarter points were sandwiched between a Kidder receiving touchdown at the 5:52 mark of the quarter, resulting in the 14-14 halftime score.
Bethel nearly took a lead into halftime, with the ball on the UMHB 22-yard line and nine seconds left in the quarter. But Dorian Williams read Jaran Roste’s pass, leaping for a timely interception that erased any chance of the Royals coming away with points. It was the second of three interceptions on the day for the UMHB defense, the most the Crusaders have recorded in a game this season.
“Three picks are rare for our offense,” Roste said postgame. “One of the reasons we’d been successful the past few weeks was we played turnover-free football. Their defensive backs made some really good plays. That’s a great defense.”
Execution down the stretch
Still, UMHB did not lead for the game’s first three quarters.
Bethel took nearly five minutes off the clock on its first possession of the second half, putting seven more points on the board when Micah Niewald reeled in a high-arcing pass from Roste from 25 yards out. The Crusaders nearly matched that, if it was not for two false-start penalties and incompletion on third-and-goal that instead forced them to settle for a 23-yard field goal.
Anthony Avila’s three points made it 21-17, but another long drive followed from the Royals, who slowly wore down the UMHB defensive line, and found the end zone to make it 28-17.
Having held possession just once in the third quarter, UMHB’s offense knew it needed, in King’s words, “a quick score”. The play of Bethel’s offensive line, and a rushing attack that tallied 141 yards in the contest, made it obvious that a lengthy drive would leave little time for the completion of the comeback.
“They did a really good job in the third quarter of eating up the clock,” King said of Bethel’s offense. “If we had a six-to-seven minute drive, we might not have gotten the ball back. That’s not a lack of confidence in our defense. It’s just how Bethel was playing the game.”
The quick score to Miller was key, both in cutting the deficit to five, and in bringing up the level of energy. In what was likely their final home game at UMHB, King and Miller connected on six occasions for 144 passing yards, 82 of which came after the catch.
“After KJ made that play, the effort that our team played with was different than what it had been for three quarters,” Harmon said. “It completely woke us up. I didn’t think we were playing with a lot of energy early on, and we needed a spark. KJ has done it for a long time for us, and did it again today.”
Offensive and defensive lines noticeably stepped up
For the role the passing game played in UMHB’s scoring success, it was the rushing attack that seemingly put the game away. The Cru ran the ball 14 times for 70 yards in the first half, accounting for both touchdowns, but stepped into an even bigger role as the final minutes ticked away. On the 52-yard drive that made it a two-possession game with just over five minutes left, the offensive line paved the way on five straight running plays, overmatching what had been a tenacious Bethel defensive front.
“That was probably the best drive they’ve had all season,” King said of the offensive line. “That was a season-changing-type drive.”
On the other side of the ball, the defensive line rose to the occasion in similar fashion. Roste was not sacked once in the first half, and sat in the pocket with plenty of time. That changed, though, when the fourth quarter began.
“Every quarterback has a clock in his head [of how long until the defense starts to close in],” Harmon said. “You can feel the pressure. I thought our kids, especially in the fourth quarter, really took another step on their pass rush. They took it upon themselves to make Roste, who is an incredible player, uncomfortable.”
It was adjustments such as that one, and an overall cohesiveness on both sides of the ball that ultimately led to the victory. It did not come without struggle, but perhaps that makes the win mean a little bit more.
“I’ve been to battle with these same guys for 29 games after next week,” King said. “There’s nobody else I’d rather be with as far as an offensive group goes. And like Coach Harmon said, the defense gaining more and more confidence in big situations is huge. I was confident we’d come back and get the win.”