Photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON–UMHB head football coach Larry Harmon did not try to sugarcoat his comments on the Crusaders’ 45-22 season-opening loss at Monday’s weekly press conference. He was honest in his assessment of the Week 1 performance, which included points where technique lacked, simple mistakes were made, and UW-River Falls found repeated success on offensive drives.
“Nobody played perfectly, [and] no coach coached perfectly,” Harmon said.
Yet the picture of the 2023 UMHB football team is not as bleak as what many have painted it out to be in the days and hours following the loss. There is plenty of belief within the program, and Harmon’s comments at Monday’s weekly press conference backed that up.
“We still believe in ourselves,” Harmon said. “We know we didn’t perform the way we needed to perform. But nobody is pointing fingers. Everybody took the responsibility for their own mistakes, both players and coaches together. I think we’re headed in the right direction. We have another opportunity to prove that on Saturday.”
That opportunity comes as the Crusaders head south along I-35 for Saturday evening’s 6 p.m. matchup against No. 5 Trinity. In each of the last two years, the in-state powers have met in the postseason; Trinity traveled to Belton in the First Round of the 2021 playoffs, and in 2022, UMHB won at Trinity in the Second Round.
Now they meet in the regular season, with both programs coming off tough season-opening defeats. Trinity fell at No. 4 Saint John’s, 34-31, in overtime on Saturday.
“It’s a familiar foe,” Harmon said of Trinity. “They know us. We know them. It’s going to come down to who’s going to make a play.”
With that, here are three takeaways from Harmon’s press conference as The Cru heads into Week 2 of the regular season.
Phe is expected to start at quarterback against Trinity
Isaac Phe was the third quarterback to enter Saturday’s season opener, and the Pasadena, California native finished his collegiate debut with five completions on 14 passing attempts, throwing for 97 yards. With just under three minutes in the fourth quarter, the sophomore completed a two-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Day Jr., and displayed resilience as he faced pressure on several plays from the UWRF defensive front.
“He competed,” Harmon said when asked about Phe. “He wasn’t scared. I thought he did a good job of taking what the defense gave him. When he had to run, he did, and he ran with purpose. He took a couple shots, but just got right up and went to the huddle.”
Harmon said that Phe will start against Trinity on Saturday, and did not comment on the statuses of Jackson Tingler and Landon Howell, the other two quarterbacks who took snaps for The Cru against UWRF before leaving the game with injury.
“I think Isaac Phe will get the start,” Harmon said. “I think he deserves that from his production from Saturday’s game. I’m not going to comment on the other injuries.”
Added Harmon: “I thought Isaac did a good job of competing, and showing his offensive teammates that he can move the offense and move the ball, and that he deserves everybody’s respect that we can move forward with him being the signal caller.”
Of the areas that Harmon noted improvement was necessary, conditioning and technique stood out
Late in the press conference, Harmon was asked about his expectations for the upcoming week of practice, and the areas in which he feels his team needs to exhibit improvement. He noted that the players ran and lifted on Sunday, and will have their first practice of the week on Tuesday. Amongst the things that will be focused on are technique and conditioning, alongside preparing for the matchup against Trinity.
“The biggest thing I’m disappointed in is the conditioning of my team,” Harmon said. “The defense played a bunch of snaps, and [UWRF] was going tempo. I thought we played pretty solid on defense until the fatigue got to the point where it was almost exhaustion. And then our mind started slipping, and we started making mental mistakes. [UWRF] started being able to move the ball, especially late in the second quarter.”
He expanded his thoughts on improving the conditioning of the team in answering a following question, noting that “game-like” aspects of practice will be used to build the necessary endurance and stamina required when playing at a quicker pace on both sides of the ball.
“In our competition stuff, we are going to do some tempo,” he added. “We’re going to move the ball regardless of if it was a positive play or not. We’re going to try to go fast and get the offensive line, defensive line, everybody, running and getting lined up fast. Looking at the signals from the coaches on the sidelines. We’re going to have a period where we try to make it as game-like as we can to try to push our conditioning.”
As far as the technique goes, that is also an area that will receive attention, and is likely to see notable improvement in Saturday’s contest against Trinity.
“Right now, after how we performed, I don’t think we can ignore some of the technique stuff that we didn’t do properly,” Harmon noted. “I want to make sure that we have time to teach and get that going. Because it doesn’t matter what scheme you run if your body mechanics are so bad that you can’t execute what you’re trying to do.”
Within the program, confidence in the future remains intact
The season-opening defeat left a bad taste in the mouths of those around the program, in large part due to the correctable miscues that were made. Though opinions around the future of the season for UMHB swirled on social media on Saturday afternoon and into Sunday, within the program, mutual confidence between the coaching staff and players has not been lost, Harmon said.
That was a point that was clarified at UMHB’s team meeting on Sunday.
“My fear yesterday was, ‘Have the players lost confidence in the coaches, or have the coaches lost confidence in the players?’ The answer came back on both sides, ‘No.’” So, now we have to do a good job of getting a plan for them and they need to do a good job of staying focused and executing.”
Harmon was asked early in the press conference how his team will respond to the loss; a broad question, and the million-dollar question, certainly. But his response was insightful.
“You have two choices. You either play the victim and say it wasn’t your fault. Or we bow our neck and say that we’re going to do everything we can not to let this happen again and we’re going to bond together and be a team. I know the direction I want to go. I had a great meeting with our unity council then had a great meeting with our team. I believe that everybody is on the same page that we’re going to bow our neck and go to work, have accountability for what we’re supposed to do, and get the ship going in the right direction.”
Keeping things in perspective with a loss of this caliber is important, considering nine games remain on the regular season schedule, including the entire American Southwest Conference slate. A Week 1 loss hurts, but two Top 10 opponents remain on the non-conference schedule over the next two weeks. A duel with No. 6 Hardin-Simmons is set for Oct. 28, meaning UMHB still has three opportunities to face a team currently ranked in the D3football.com Top 25. Everything–with the exception of an undefeated season–remains on the table entering Week 2.
“The only goal that we can’t achieve right now is an undefeated season,” Harmon told reporters. “We’re not as broken as what some people want to put on social media. We have a good team. We have good players. We just have to execute and be able to focus and do what we’re asked to do.”