Photo by Steve Woltmann/North Central College Athletics
NAPERVILLE, Ill.-Since Week 1, UMHB’s goal had been to become the first team in program history to win consecutive national titles.
The Crusaders very nearly accomplished that objective too, going 9-1 in the regular season before emerging from arguably the toughest quadrant in the 2022 bracket, beating Huntingdon, Trinity, and Bethel in the first three rounds. But back-to-back titles were not meant to be.
Under a cloudy sky in northern Illinois, against North Central, the team UMHB beat to claim last year’s Stagg Bowl, everything seemed to go wrong on Saturday afternoon.
The passes that normally would go for significant gains fell incomplete. The rushing attack gained little traction on the wet turf. The UMHB defense, who had so proven itself over the previous three weeks, struggled in containing the Cardinal offense. And a 14-0 deficit before the Cru even took possession added to the challenges.
Those elements combined for a convincing 49-14 win for North Central, punching the Cardinals’ ticket to a third straight Stagg Bowl.
“It’s been a long time since Mary Hardin-Baylor has been beaten in all three phases of the game, like we were today,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said postgame. “Credit to North Central, and Coach Spencer. They did a great job tonight and beat us about as badly as you can get beat.”
UMHB trailed by two scores before the offense took the field
For the game’s entirety, UMHB was playing from behind, which made staying in contention that much more difficult. The Cardinal offense, true to form, opened the game with a balanced offensive attack, alternating between running the ball and throwing it on its first eight plays of the first quarter. After running it three straight times, all for positive yardage, NCC quarterback Luke Lehnen completed the first of three passing touchdowns, finding Alec Wolff from 16 yards out for a 7-0 lead.
NCC then kicked the ball off, but it was never touched by the Crusaders. Instead, in a rugby-esque move, Tanner Rains’ kickoff was caught on the bounce by Joe Sacco, downed on the 32-yard line, as rules permit the kicking team to recover the ball if it hits the ground prior to the recovery. Just like that, the Cardinal offense was back on the field. So was the Crusader defense, who had barely but a second to catch its breath following NCC’s previous seven-plus minute drive.
It did not take the Cardinals seven minutes on their second possession, however. In fact, it took just 1:22 for the hosts to find the end zone once again, with Ethan Greenfield twisting his way out of what appeared to be a sure-tackle at the five-yard line, scoring NCC’s second touchdown of the day.
UMHB’s response was quick, though, once the offense was given an opportunity. It took just seven plays to go 61 yards, with the senior duo of quarterback Kyle King and receiver Brandon Jordan connecting on a 15-yard score at the 3:39 mark. It lifted the spirits on the sideline but also proved to be the only drive UMHB’s offense had in the opening 15 minutes, with NCC holding possession for 12 minutes, 45 seconds.
The game’s decisive six minutes
The Cardinals scored again just over two minutes into the second-quarter, but again UMHB erased the two-possession deficit, as the defense showed its ability by forcing an NCC punt after just three plays on the next possession. King found Jordan once again, taking advantage of the stop, as a 32-yard score cut the margin to just seven points. It was Jordan’s third catch of the drive, but also ended up as the final touchdown of his collegiate career.
He nearly had a third score too, but in what many considered a controversial call on King’s third-down pass from the NCC four-yard line with 30 seconds left in the second quarter, Jordan lost his grip on the football as he went to the ground. The controversy surrounded the fact that the NCC defensive back had his arm around Jordan’s neck as the receiver attempted to make the play, more often than not, a pass interference call.
And so the field goal unit was called upon, with Anthony Avila looking to make his 16th field goal of the year. But the 23-yard attempt was blocked by the Cardinals, who took plenty of momentum in halftime from the play, leading by 14.
UMHB opened the second half with the ball, and a chance to cut the deficit back to single digits. As would be the case throughout the final 30 minutes, though, NCC’s defense kept the Crusaders out of the end zone. Sam Taviani, who came up with a momentum-building sack early in the second quarter, intercepted King’s second pass of the drive, putting the ball in the hands of NCC’s offense, who capitalized on the turnover with a Deangelo Hardy touchdown. Then the Cardinals began pulling away.
“I thought the critical part of this game was the last three minutes of the first half and the first three minutes of the second half,” Harmon said postgame. “We had a touchdown call taken away, [NCC] blocked a field goal, and then we came out and threw an interception in the first series.
“We were in a situation, where [if you score], you’re either tied at half ready to go back out, or down four thinking you have a chance to take the lead on that first possession. Instead we were down 14. We couldn’t dig out of that hole.”
The role of the rushing attack
Part of that was the relentless rushing attack of the Cardinals, led by Greenfield, a Gagliardi Trophy finalist, who ran for 127 yards. But surprisingly, he was not NCC’s leading rusher. Lehnen held that title, picking up 139 yards on the ground, including a 43-yard sprint late in the third that set up Greenfield’s second score of the day, and a 35-14 lead.
“There in the first quarter, we had him on 3rd & long, and he got [a first down],” Harmon said. “It was just him scrambling through a gap. We had people covered, so you have to take a pick of, ‘Are you going to cover people or have everybody at the line of scrimmage and have guys running down the field open?’”
NCC totaled 294 yards on the ground, backing up its ranking as the nation’s No. 2 rushing offense. And it played a critical role in allowing the Cardinals to both complete passes downfield, and take time off the clock, limiting UMHB’s number of possessions. NCC had the ball for nearly nine more minutes than the Cru.
“The thing that was frustrating for us defensively was they were able to run the ball this year on us,” Harmon noted, “and they couldn’t last year in the national championship game. Therefore, their passing was a lot more efficient.”
Conversely, UMHB struggled in establishing the same level of rushing success, with a mere 39 yards on 29 carries. As was demonstrated by NCC, success on the ground has the potential to lead to opportunities through the air, something the Crusaders did not have, in part because of NCC’s defensive front, and in part because they were always playing from behind.
“It’s not the offensive line’s fault that we didn’t have a lot of rushing yards,” King said postgame “I think it was just the flow of the game. It makes it harder obviously, because their two defensive ends are studs, and they’re well-coached. They’re not going to give you wide-open guys.”
The end of the road
Late in the second quarter, King, who Harmon described as “the heartbeat of our program” following the loss, was hit hard in the backfield, landing on his shoulder. King was asked about the impact of the injury on his second-half performance, but dismissed the injury as having an affect. He finished the game 19-of-38 passing for 247 yards
“The injury wasn’t a factor at all,” King noted. “They had a good defense, a good D-Line, and I made a poor mistake on the first drive of the second half which I thought really turned the tide of the game. It’s disappointing for me, something I’m going to have to live with for a little bit.”
Indeed it is a tough pill to swallow, considering the preseason goals the Crusaders, and specifically the senior class carried. There is an obvious disappointment in coming up one game short of Annapolis and the Stagg Bowl. But that should not take away from what the team put together, bouncing back after a devastating defeat in Wisconsin to take down rival Hardin-Simmons two weeks later, and reach the national semifinals for the fifth time in the last six playoff appearances. And with a new head coach at the helm.
“I thought our senior leadership there at the end of the regular season in Week 10 picked it up and our practices became a lot better,” Harmon mentioned postgame.
But a spot in the Stagg Bowl required just a little bit more in this year’s semifinal matchup.
“If we want to have an opportunity to be a team that plays for national championships,” said Harmon at the end of the postgame press conference, “we have to be a lot better than we were today.”