Photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
Editor’s Note: According to a note from the UMHB athletics website, the box score has some inaccuracies, which will be updated when available
RIVER FALLS, Wis.-It seemed that everything that could go wrong in a game went wrong for the third-ranked UMHB football team in Saturday’s season opener at UW-River Falls; a season opener that ended with the 23rd-ranked Falcons prevailing, 45-22.
It marked UMHB’s first season-opening loss since Sept. 9, 2006, when Christopher Newport won a 15-10 contest in Newport News, Virginia.
In a fairly one-sided game, UWRF raced out to a 28-3 lead by the 12:02 mark of the second quarter, aided by exceptional starting field position on a number of early possessions. Though UMHB’s defense stepped up as the game went on, and forced a pair of turnovers–including a forced fumble from Omari Frazier that led to UMHB’s first touchdown of the contest–it was not enough. The Falcon defense limited the effectiveness of UMHB’s offense and maintained the double-digit lead through all four quarters.
“I think it’s the defense that allowed this to happen,” UWRF head coach Matt Walker remarked postgame. “That’s a dominant day because of the defense.”
The Falcons’ first two scores stemmed from a series of special teams miscues. After UMHB’s first possession, the Cru lined up to punt, but the snap went over the head of punter Jack Bruner, resulting in a punt that traveled a net distance of -10 yards. Two plays later, UWRF quarterback Kaleb Blaha crossed the goal line with a rushing touchdown for a 7-0 lead.
One drive later, Bruner mishandled the punt snap, and UWRF promptly tackled him in the backfield, forcing a turnover on downs at UMHB’s own 19-yard line. This time it took six plays, but the result was the same; Blaha found Mason Van Zeeland in the end zone for a 14-0 lead.
“When we had to drive the long field, you could see it was hard going for us,” Walker added. “But when we had short fields, we could really make some noise.”
It was not just that sequence that produced the final result, though it certainly got the ball rolling.
14 penalty calls against The Cru hurt, especially as UMHB cut the deficit to 35-10 at halftime, and attempted to fight back into the game.
On two occasions, what appeared to be a sure fumble recovery by UMHB saw UWRF retain possession in somewhat controversial fashion. The first instance came just over three minutes into the second quarter, when the Falcon ballcarrier was ruled down prior to losing the ball on the UMHB 10-yard line. Blaha scored on a rushing touchdown one play later. In other play with 6:42 left in the second, it appeared UWRF fumbled on a run play, but the ballcarrier was said to be down before losing the ball due to forward progress.
And Jackson Tingler and Landon Howell, UMHB’s two quarterbacks listed on the two-deep depth chart, were both forced to exit the game at different points due to injury, which added to the offense’s challenges. Tingler was 8-for-13 with 108 yards and an interception, and Howell finished 3-for-10 with 30 yards, tossing a touchdown pass to Jerry Cephus in the second quarter.
In the absence of Tingler and Howell, quarterback Isaac Phe entered the game and played for the entire fourth quarter, throwing UMHB’s second touchdown pass of the game on a completion to Jerry Day Jr. with just under three minutes left. Phe finished 5-of-14 with 97 passing yards in his collegiate debut.
UWRF simultaneously surged after taking the first-quarter 14-0 lead. With a fast-paced offense and Blaha and his receivers in sync, the Falcons overcame strong effort from the UMHB defensive front. UWRF marched within 20 yards of the goal line eight times, scoring on seven of those drives. Six of those red-zone scores were touchdowns.
“It’s an unselfish offense,” Walker said. “The ball is distributed everywhere. We take what the defense is giving us. When everybody’s number was called today, it seemed like everybody made plays when we needed it.”
In addition to the offensive and defensive success, Walker noted that the special teams unit executed its gameplan “to a T”. That played a significant role in the outcome.
“The kick game is going to be the unsung hero,” Walker said. “That’s the best return team in America. We had a pretty specific plan against it and executed it to a T. I’m really proud of that special teams group.”
Frustrating as the loss is for the Crusaders, it seemed that a season opener of this caliber might be a necessary evil in the growth of a relatively young team. Several Crusaders debuted as starters for the first time in their careers on Saturday, and the lessons that will undoubtedly be carried into next Saturday’s showdown in San Antonio against No. 4 Trinity (TX) are extremely valuable. Far more valuable, perhaps, than a one-sided win in the season-opener in which a legitimate test never shows up.
“We can’t let this game beat us twice,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said. “Obviously we just shot ourselves in the foot in the first quarter, lost composure, and everything else that you get with a young team.
“But that’s why we schedule these games. That’s why we play good people. The bottom line is that I need to get my team ready to win our conference. We win the conference, we’re in the playoffs.
“We might be on the road every game. I don’t care. Playoffs are just about wins. We weren’t the best team today…hopefully by Week 15 we are the best team.”
UMHB kicks off against Trinity (TX) at 6 p.m. in San Antonio on Sept. 9 in Week 2. The Tigers also come off a season-opening Top 25 loss, having fallen to No. 6 St. John’s in overtime, 34-31, on Saturday.
Meanwhile, UWRF heads into the remainder of its schedule, including the all-too-important seven WIAC games that close the season. While taking down a national power in UMHB is a definite sign that Walker’s program is trending along the right path, his team will not be dwelling on Saturday’s result too much either. Nine games remain on the slate.
“The next nine weeks are going to decide a lot,” Walker said. “We obviously gave ourselves a chance to have a pretty special year with a win like this against a national opponent. But it’s like, ‘You better get to work tomorrow on the next opponent, or this win can be erased pretty quickly.’”
Stay tuned for a photo gallery of Saturday’s contest from True To The Cru photographer Luke Zayas, who was on the sidelines capturing the action in the season opener.