Photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON- When the 2022 D-III football playoff bracket was released, it seemed imminent that a 2021 Stagg Bowl rematch would be the deciding contest in UMHB’s opportunity for a return trip to the national title game.
Perhaps it is fate, or more reasonably, the unwavering ability to rise to the test, that has gotten No. 3 UMHB and top-ranked North Central College back to this point, nearly a year later. And the stakes could not be higher.
“I don’t think there’s any question that this is a title game,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said, referencing the elite level of competition anticipated in the rematch between two of the nation’s highest ranked teams.
Harmon met with the media on Monday to discuss the matchup against North Central, what it means to his team to be one win away from the Stagg Bowl, and more, as the Crusaders enter the semifinal round of the postseason.
Here are three takeaways from Harmon’s meeting with the press.
North Central isn’t the same, but is similar, to the squad UMHB battled in 2021
It was just under a year ago that UMHB faced North Central for the first time in program history, and in that contest, the Crusaders just pulled away after NCC got an early spark by returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown. The 57-24 result was a major high point for the program, and entering this matchup, Harmon was asked how much, if anything can be taken away from last year’s meeting. As it turns out, though the Cardinals, much like the Cru, lost some key pieces on both sides of the ball, and have a new head coach in Brad Spencer, much of what they do is the same, or at least similar.
“They run a lot of the same formations, the same concepts on defense,” Harmon said. “They have a lot of the same kids. They lost a few players on offense as far as receivers, and also lost the tall cornerback who they put on Brandon [Jordan] last year. Obviously both teams are a little bit different than we were last year, but there’s a familiarity that will help both coaching staffs prepare for this.”
In a quick glance, NCC returns eight of their 11 starters from the Stagg Bowl on offense (with the three departures having all returned as members of the coaching staff), and five of 11 on defense. UMHB has nine of its 11 back on offense, and four returning starters from that Stagg Bowl meeting on defense.
UMHB’s late-game execution is a credit to the “belief in each other”
Something Harmon touched on in the postgame press conference following Saturday’s 41-28 win over Bethel, and was asked about on Monday as well was in regards to the late-game execution of his entire team. Back-to-back weeks, UMHB found ways to win with the pressure on, a testament to the Crusaders, and their postseason mindset.
“Our guys have a tremendous amount of belief in each other,” Harmon said. “We have a bunch of great teammates on this team. When games get a little tight, there’s no complaining or pointing fingers. All there is is a calmness and belief in each other.”
To use Saturday’s win as an example, UMHB’s offense tallied 282 total yards of offense in the game’s first three quarters, but then had over half of that in the fourth quarter alone, with 167. And the defense, which allowed 154 offensive yards in the third quarter, gave up just 87 in the fourth, adding two sacks.
“We have enough playmakers on our team, that each and every one of them is saying, ‘I hope the play comes my way. I’m ready to make a play.’ I don’t know if it’s anything more than that. There’s 30 guys who have won a lot of games together and they don’t want this to end. They’ve been criticized for playing Whitewater and not winning that game, but going into that environment and that whole experience I believe will come back and help us this week.”
“We’re living in very special times”
Harmon was asked about the resilience of the returning group on the roster, the players who played in the abbreviated five-game spring in 2021, then put together a 15-0 record en route to a Stagg Bowl title last December. Battle-tested in a number of ways, the Crusaders have embodied the ‘survive and advance’ mentality that is so often associated with the postseason, in the last two victories over Trinity and Bethel, neither of which came easy.
He mentioned the passion that his players put towards the sport, the love they share for the university, and added that this is truly a special time in the history of the program, with a number of all-american- caliber players in the final season of their collegiate careers.
“The love that our kids have for the game, for each other, for the coaching staff, for this university, they’re a very special group,” Harmon said. “I hope our fans and our administration and our coaches as well- I say it almost every day- you might not have another KJ Miller ever to coach so you better enjoy it right now. We’re living in very special times. These guys have a tremendous love for each other and just love to play the game. They love to compete.”
He also echoed the goal that has been talked about for this squad since the opening weeks of the season: be the first team in program history (and the first in D-III since 2014) to claim consecutive Stagg Bowl championships.
“They want to be the first group to go back-to-back [in winning national titles] and that’s never been done in our program. It’s hard to find things now that haven’t been done in this program. Back in the early 2000s, you could do it pretty simple. But now in 2022, that’s a lot harder to do and these guys are finding ways to get into the record book which is really special. We just need to fight another week and try to dance to the natty one more time.”
UMHB kicks off against North Central at 2:30 p.m. CT in Naperville, Illinois on Dec. 10. The game will be live on ESPN+.