BELTON-Coming out of a trip to San Antonio and a 35-16 loss to fifth-ranked Trinity, UMHB Football has little time to dwell on the past heading into Week 3.
Head coach Larry Harmon feels his squad, now ranked 19th in the nation, exhibited improvement between the 45-22 season-opening loss to UW-River Falls and Saturday’s 35-16 defeat at the hands of Trinity. Now, that improvement will be put to the test against one of the hottest teams in D-III: No. 4 UW-Whitewater. And this time, unlike in the last two weeks, UMHB has a home field to defend.
“We’re ready to get back,” Harmon said of the home opener. “We’re excited to play in front of our home crowd. It’s going to be a “gold-out”. It’s just another great opportunity for us to play against a really good team and see where we are.”
The history with Whitewater runs deep (more on that in Wednesday’s newsletter), and the Warhawks are the highest-ranked opponent UMHB has faced thus far. UW-Whitewater arrives in Belton with wins over No. 17 John Carroll and No. 9 Saint John’s (current rankings), under first-year head coach Jace Rindahl.
“I told the guys in our first meeting of the year that these three games are trying to get us to be prepared and have a chance to win our conference and get into the playoffs.
“Obviously I didn’t think we’d be 0-2 right now. But I do think that playing against good people really shows where your weaknesses are. Those are being shown right now and we’re learning from them. If we can fix the mistakes we made last week, like we did the week of Week 1, I think we’ll be in good shape for the beginning of our conference play.”
With that, here are three takeaways from Harmon’s weekly press conference on Monday.
Harmon had a different vantage point against Trinity
Since his early days as a coach, dating back to his time as a graduate assistant, Harmon spent games coaching from the press box. That includes the four games he spent at the beginning of the 2018 season as UMHB’s interim head coach. In fact, it was not until last season–his first as UMHB’s head coach–that he coached a game from the sidelines.
So in an effort to better identify necessary areas of improvement, he coached from the box against Trinity. He noted that it was a decision he made on gameday and plans to decide if he will be in the box again or on the sidelines against Whitewater later in the week.
“The main reason for going up was just to see if I could be more of a benefit to both sides [of the ball], being in the box compared to being on the sideline,” Harmon said. “That’s all that was. I didn’t see any real negative of being up there.
“In the box you see it easier and it’s not as emotional because you’re kind of away. I thought some aspects of that were really good. There were some things that I was able to help both sides with.”
Players taking charge was a positive from San Antonio
Both during and following Saturday’s contest, a few players stepped forth and took charge as vocal leaders. The involvement of those strong voices is a necessary aspect to turning the tide and instilling confidence after what has undoubtedly been a challenging start.
“When you’re not being successful, there will be kids who say, ‘This isn’t what I signed up for’, so you start getting less of an effort,” Harmon said. “The guys that have been through it, they’re the ones who are really hurting. They’re really trying to do everything they can to get us on track for where we’re supposed to be.”
One of those experienced players is Ethan Ruckman, a preseason All-America offensive lineman, who is one of the few returning starters on the offensive side of the ball. Ruckman passionately spoke to his teammates and took charge in the team huddle postgame, which Harmon said he was glad to see. A core group is expected to emerge from these “trials and tribulations”, as Harmon put it, and it starts with a few of the veterans on the roster.
“I was glad to see it. I wasn’t surprised because Ethan Ruckman has been the backbone of this offense and our team for a lot of years now,” Harmon noted. “The Ruckman family, they’ve been with us for what seems like the last 10 years. It’s great to have him back.
“I thought he did a great job taking charge. I thought Jerry Day did a nice job. I think we’re going to get a core group of kids that emerge out of this. I took 62 [players] last week. We usually only take 58. We’re going to get to that playoff roster number here soon. We’re just trying to figure out the last 10 pieces of that 58, who they are and who our core group is going to be.”
A faster start is a goal for the offense moving forwards
Through two games, UMHB has netted just 55 rushing yards, with 11 sacks taking away from a large chunk of the positive yardage gained by the Crusader rushing attack. Just five of UMHB’s 35 first downs have come on the ground, compared to 22 via passing plays. 237.5 of their 265.0 yards of total offense per game are credited to the pass, which makes more sense when looking at the game situations UMHB has recently found itself in.
At no point through the first eight quarters of the 2023 season has UMHB held a lead. In the case of both UW-River Falls and Trinity, the Crusaders trailed by at least 14 points at the end of the first quarter. That prompted more passing plays as the offense looked to gain traction, leaving less room for a consistent balance between the run and the pass.
“We start slow,” Harmon said. “So our offense has been in situations where we’re down 14 already and your play calls have to change because you’re trying to get back into it instead of just being able to run it. I think that has a big factor in [the 55 rushing yards].”
He added that he thought the offense ran the ball “decent” against Trinity, with Kenneth Cormier Jr. picking up 47 yards, and Kenneth Miller Jr. tallying 54 yards.
Part of the minimal rushing and the high number of sacks allowed is due to the youth of the offense, and more specifically, the offensive line which has continued making strides with new starters. It remains an area for improvement, but it also goes beyond that. The path to a more balanced offensive attack seems more likely in a game situation in which the deficit is not double digits early on. And that stems from a faster start.
“We have some young guys up there [on the offensive line],” Harmon said. “But we have a true freshman in there at center (Elijah Mankins) who is a whale of a player. Sometimes we don’t get things communicated when we need to, but we’re trying to [improve] on it.
“Obviously we need to be able to rush the ball more than what we are, but we also need to start faster. We need to play better defense to where it’s 0-0 and let our offense be balanced. There’s a whole bunch more than just the O-Line or Coach Padron calling something. It’s just how our team is right now. We all know we need to speed up. We just have to get there.”