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The Best of Belton PLAYOFF PREVIEW: UMHB battles North Central, trip to the Stagg Bowl on the line

Previewing this week’s playoff matchup, presented by The Best of Belton

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Date/Time: December 10, 2:30 p.m. CST
Location: Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium, Naperville, Illinois

WATCH: ESPN+ (subscription required) 

Radio: 93.9 FM/1330 AM

No. 3 UMHB

Head coach: Larry Harmon

Located: Belton, Texas

Conference: American Southwest (ASC)

Overall Record: 12-1

ASC record: 8-0

How they got here: UMHB won the ASC title in a 62-3 win over McMurry, then followed that up with a shutout of Huntingdon in the first round. A 24-17 win over Trinity on the road brought the Cru back to Belton, where they overcame an 11-point fourth quarter deficit against Bethel in the third round, winning 41-28. 

Postseason playoff streak: 19 (2004-2022)

No. 1 North Central

Head Coach: Brad Spencer

Located: Naperville, Illinois

Conference: College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (CCIW)

Record: 13-0

Conference Record: 9-0

How they got here: Behind a strong rushing attack, North Central steamrolled its opponents throughout the regular season and into the playoffs. The Cardinal defense has allowed a total of 14 points in the first three rounds of the postseason, having defeated Ithaca 48-7 in the quarterfinals on Dec. 3. 

Postseason playoff streak: 6 (2016-2022)

Series history

UMHB and North Central have battled just once before, in the 2021 Stagg Bowl, as the Crusaders claimed the national title in Canton, Ohio, defeating the Cardinals in a convincing 57-24 victory. Kyle King threw for 436 yards and linebacker Mikkah Hackett had two interceptions, as he was named the Stagg Bowl MVP. 

Key to the game

For NCC: Winning the turnover battle: “Winning the turnover battle each week is always a focus for us and something we practice each day on offense and defense. If you look at our game last year against UMHB, we didn’t get close to winning the turnover battle.We turned it over, we did not take it away. So this year’s that’s been a focus and outside of one game, we’ve won the turnover battle every week.” -NCC HC Brad Spencer

For UMHB: It starts on the line: “Both teams pride themselves on being physical with the defensive line and the offensive line. So the team that controls the line of scrimmage will be the team that will win this game.” -UMHB HC Larry Harmon

Gagliardi Finalists

This is the only matchup in the D-III semifinals that features two Gagliardi Trophy finalists, in UMHB’s Kyle King and NCC’s Ethan Greenfield. 

King, the Region 3 Offensive Player of the Year, has already broken three program records in this season alone, throwing for 39 touchdowns and 3,429 yards. The fifth-year senior is 26-1 as UMHB starting quarterback since the spring of 2021, and in addition to his on-field stats, is also a volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Milano, Texas and holds a 3.22 GPA as an exercise and sports science major. 

Greenfield, NCC’s starting running back who leads the nation in rushing yardage, is the Region 5 Offensive Player of the Year as well as the CCIW’s 2022 recipient of the Ark Keller student-athlete award. He ranks sixth in D-III history in career rushing yardage (6,433) and fifth in career scoring (546 points). 

Defense is key for NCC

North Central has been terrific on both sides of the ball, but defensively has made a name for itself, ranking first in the nation in red zone defense (44.4%), second in third down conversion defense (22.8%) and fourth in turnovers gained (34). 

The strength begins on the defensive line, where junior defensive tackle Dan Lester has made a name for himself, earning Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors in the CCIW this year. He has 19.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in 2022. Sam Taviani is another key component, from his position at linebacker. Able to rush the quarterback, help in run support, or cover an opposing receiver, Taviani has been terrific with 65 tackles, three pass breakups and an interception this season. The leading tackler is linebacker BJ Adamchik, whose 50 solo tackles is a team-best. 

Playmakers on offense headline UMHB

Like the Cardinals, UMHB has been solid in all three facets of the game throughout these playoffs. The offense, with nine returning offensive starters, has executed well this season, ranking fifth in the nation in first downs with 299, and eighth in passing efficiency (174.14). The Cru offense is also eighth in red zone offense, coming away with points on 88.2 percent of its trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. 

A strong offensive performance will be key against a defense to the caliber of NCC’s, quite likely the best defense UMHB has faced this season. The Crusaders are prepared, though, with a number of veteran playmakers. King, receiver K.J. Miller, center Jeffery Sims Jr., offensive lineman Ethan Ruckman, running back Aphonso Thomas, and kicker Anthony Avila each earned All-Region honors from on Wednesday. King ranks fourth in D-III in passing yards, third in passing touchdowns, Miller is 14th in receiving yardage, and Miller and Brandon Jordan are tied for 14th in receiving touchdowns, with 12 apiece. 

First year in charge

Interestingly, neither of the two head coaches who led their respective teams into last year’s Stagg Bowl will be on the sidelines for the rematch, as UMHB’s Pete Fredenburg retired after an accomplished career in January 2022. NCC’s Jeff Thorne left the program on Feb. 1, 2022, taking the offensive coordinator job at D-I Western Michigan. 

Now leading the charge are two longtime coordinators, who actually went head-to-head in their own in last year’s Stagg Bowl, with NCC’s Brad Spencer calling the offensive plays for the Cardinals, while UMHB’s Larry Harmon called the defensive plays to counter those. Harmon has been a member of UMHB’s program since 1999, while Spencer, who played at NCC and graduated in 2004, has been part of the coaching staff in Naperville since the 2004 season, when he was named the wide receivers coach. 

On the road

UMHB is playing on the road for the fifth time in a national semifinal matchup, most recently going on the road in 2021, where the Crusaders beat Wisconsin-Whitewater, 24-7. UMHB is 2-2 in its semifinal contests played away from Belton, having also won in 2004 at Mount Union, 38-35. 

Additional pregame reading:

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