Photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
Week 1 of the 2023 D-III football season begins this week, and No. 3 Mary Hardin-Baylor is set for a highly-anticipated road matchup against No. 23 Wisconsin-River Falls. Recent trends, UMHB’s all-time record against WIAC programs, players to watch, and more is included in “True To The Cru’s Week 1 Football Preview” presented by Cornerstone Site Services, a proud sponsor of True To The Cru.
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All-time series history
This marks the first meeting between UMHB and UW-River Falls. However, the Crusaders have faced a WIAC opponent on 14 occasions, nine of those coming against UW-Whitewater, who travels to Belton on Sept. 16. UMHB also faced UW-La Crosse four times and UW-Oshkosh once. UMHB is 7-7 all-time against the WIAC according to the program’s opponent history.
- UWRF enters this matchup having won its last six games at home, with the last loss coming in a 34-28 defeat to then-No. 3 UW-Whitewater on Oct. 23, 2021. The Falcons notably beat No. 15/16 UW-Oshkosh in River Falls, 27-24, last season.
- It has been three years since The Cru began its season on the road, when they took down Belhaven, 41-0, to begin the five-game spring season in 2021. But in season openers on the road, UMHB is 10-2 in program history, having won its last seven season-opening matchups away from Belton dating back to a 2009 win over Southern Nazarene in Bethany, Oklahoma.
- When playing on Wisconsin soil, UMHB is 3-3. 2023 marks the first year that the Crusaders have traveled to the state for a regular season matchup in consecutive seasons. In 2022, UMHB played at UW-Whitewater in Week 2.
- Since 2021, UWRF is 8-3 in games where the defense forces at least two turnovers.
- Over the course of their last 34 games, the Crusaders are 28-0 when leading at halftime. In the five games that UMHB did not lead at the half in that span, they were 3-2.
- Getting off to a good start defensively has been key for UMHB’s success in past years. Since the spring of 2021, The Cru is a perfect 16-0 when the opposing offense is shut out in the game’s first quarter.
A look at The Cru
UMHB enters 2023 under second-year head coach Larry Harmon, who guided the Crusaders to a 12-2 record last fall, and an appearance in the national semifinals. They begin this season as the pick to win the American Southwest Conference, having garnered 13 first-place votes in the ASC Preseason Poll, which was released last Monday.
A strong senior class graduated on offense following the 2022 campaign, which means a number of players will be stepping into new starting roles for UMHB this season. That includes the quarterback position, where senior Jackson Tingler will earn the first start of his collegiate career. Tingler was 9-for-11 on passing attempts in 2022.
Harmon also noted at his press conference on Monday that, “there might be some ‘quarterbacking-by-committee’ until somebody in that room just decides to take it over.” According to UMHB’s game notes, the Crusaders will travel to River Falls with three quarterbacks; Tingler, junior Landon Howell, and sophomore Isaac Phe.
The rushing attack is anticipated to be a major strength, as Kenneth Cormier Jr. returns after tallying 537 rushing yards and scoring 10 touchdowns in 2022. Kenneth Miller Jr. is also back, and the senior averaged an impressive 9.5 yards per carry last season, racking up 533 yards on the ground.
Defensively, UMHB returns a number of key contributors, particularly at linebacker and in the secondary. Last season, The Cru held its opponents to an average of 17.1 points per game, and ranked second in the ASC in sacks (160). Durand Hill and Johnny Smith-Rider lead the way at the linebacker position, and in the secondary, senior cornerback Titus Dunk comes off a season in which he earned All-America honors. In 2022, UMHB’s defense ranked No. 1 in the ASC against the run, allowing just 104.4 yards per ame on the ground.
3 players to watch
WR Jerry Day Jr.: Cormier and Miller will be tough to stop on the ground, but when it comes to weapons in the receiving game, Day’s name will inevitably be brought up. The Louisiana product had the most receptions of any returning receiver in 2022, ranking third on the team with 43 catches for 726 yards and seven scores. The 6-foot-2 wideout is quick, strong, and has great hands.
LB Durand Hill: A Preseason All-America selection by D3football.com and the ASC Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, Hill enters 2023 with plenty of confidence. He led UMHB in tackles in 2022 (124.0) and pass breakups (11), along with recording 8.5 tackles for loss. The Buda, Texas native is a notable force in both run and pass defense for UMHB.
KR/PR Matthew Jackson: The ASC Preseason Special Teams Player of the Year, Jackson made his presence known last season in the return game with a 95-yard punt return that resulted in a touchdown against Texas Lutheran. To date, it is the longest punt return in UMHB history. With his blistering speed and agility, the junior had 208 punt return yards and 230 kick return yards last season.
Scouting UW-River Falls
The Falcons come off a solid 7-4 season in 2022 that saw them finish third in the WIAC standings. The WIAC is undoubtedly the toughest conference in the nation, with unbelievable depth from top to bottom. Notably, UWRF put No. 4 Saint John’s on upset alert in Week 2, falling by just three points, 37-34, on the road. The Falcons also had a win over nationally-ranked UW-Oshkosh and defeated WashU in the Culver’s Isthmus Bowl, 31-24.
UWRF’s offense is a major strength, as the Falcons led the WIAC in points per game (39.1 PPG) last season and scored 60 touchdowns, also a league-best. They found most of that success going through the air, with 275.3 passing yards per contest, though UWRF also picked up 194.6 rushing yards per game.
Defensively, UWRF also challenged its opposition greatly, leading the WIAC in both interceptions (19) and sacks (30). Two of those 19 interceptions went for touchdowns.
The Falcons are head coached by Matt Walker, who is in his 13th season leading the program.
3 players to watch
QB Kaleb Blaha: The native of Coon Rapids, Michigan returns for his junior season after finding great success as a dual-threat quarterback throughout the 2022 season. Blaha ranked second in the league in rushing yards, with exactly 1,000, and also threw for the most yards of any WIAC quarterback, at 2,488 in 11 games. He averaged 226.2 passing yards, ranking third in the conference. His ability to seamlessly pick up yardage on the ground or through the air will be vital to UWRF’s success in 2023.
WR Mason Van Zeeland: Blaha needs reliable receivers downfield, and he has a pair of them in Van Zeeland and Luke Kush, both of whom enter their junior seasons. Van Zeeland led the team with 735 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago, and will look to build on that sophomore campaign against another strong schedule this fall. At 6-foot-4, Van Zeeland has a height advantage on most defensive backs he goes up against; a trait he uses well in the red zone.
DB Michael Brown: The first player in program history to garner three separate All-America honors (D3football.com, AFCA, AP), Brown comes into 2023 after dominating against WIAC offenses in 2022. Standing at 6-foot-1, the native of Victoria, Minnesota led the league in interceptions, with eight, and his 0.8 interceptions per game ranked second in the country. Brown started all 11 games and had three multi-interception performances.
Follow the action
WATCH: Livestream available on the WIAC Digital Network
LISTEN: Ward Whites and Jon Wallin will have the call once again over the airwaves in Temple/Belton on 93.9 FM.
STATS: Live stats can be found on uwrfsports.com
True To The Cru will also be on the ground in River Falls, covering all of the action. Follow us on X/Twitter and Facebook for in-game updates. Postgame coverage to come on TrueToTheCru.com.
Week 1 ASC Football Schedule (ASC team is mentioned first)
McMurry vs. Birmingham-Southern, 6:00 p.m., Little Rock, AR
ETBU @ Louisiana College, 7:00 p.m., Pineville, LA
Hardin-Simmons vs. Albright College, 7:00 p.m., Abilene, TX
Texas Lutheran @ UW-Oshkosh, 1:00 p.m., Oshkosh, WI
Austin vs. Nebraska Wesleyan, 1:00 p.m, Sherman, TX
UMHB @ UW-River Falls, 1:00 p.m, River Falls, WI
Sul Ross State @ Western New Mexico, 6:00 p.m., Silver City, NM
Howard Payne @ George Fox, 7:00 p.m., Newburg, OR