Photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON- There is no such thing as a moral victory, and UMHB head coach Larry Harmon noted that as he stood on the field underneath an overcast sky inside Crusader Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
But in the midst of a 17-14 home loss to fourth-ranked Wisconsin-Whitewater (3-0 overall), the UMHB football team took a tremendous step forward. Improvement was seen on both sides of the ball. And the Crusaders (0-3 overall) are poised for conference play, which begins with a 6 p.m. home duel against McMurry on Sept. 23.
“I thought we took a huge step,” Harmon said after the home opener. “Offense, defense, offensive line, defensive line. [Whitewater] is a real physical team. I thought we settled in, especially in the second half. I thought our confidence grew as the game went on.”
Against a high-powered offense that trounced Saint John’s, 56-28, a week prior, UMHB’s defense put forth a notable effort, holding UWW to just 255 yards of total offense. The Warhawks, who held a 14-7 lead at halftime, only managed one field goal–a 46-yarder–in the second half. The last time they crossed the goal line was on Tamir Thomas’ four-yard rushing touchdown with 6:55 left in the second quarter.
“We take pride in our defense,” UMHB linebacker Durand Hill said postgame. “Our defensive line played great today.”
The Warhawks were held scoreless in the fourth quarter, but so was UMHB. Each of The Cru’s final two drives ended with a turnover, keeping UWW’s lead intact. Perhaps the most critical point in the second half came on UMHB’s second-to-last drive, as the Crusaders marched across midfield and into Warhawk territory.
With under three minutes left, UMHB faced a fourth down, needing just one yard for a first down. Quarterback Isaac Phe took the snap under center and pushed forwards, needing every last inch he could get against UWW’s aggressive defensive front.
At some point in the pile, the ball was jarred loose, and recovered by UWW. Or at least it was called that way. Though a clear angle could not be easily seen, and replay review is not used in D-III during regular season games, it appeared that Phe’s forward progress had stopped prior to the fumble, which should have resulted in the end of the play. But in a controversial call, the officials ruled that Phe did not establish forward progress, giving UWW possession.
“I really felt like our forward progress on the quarterback sneak was stopped,” Harmon said. “The sideline guy on our side blew his whistle. I don’t know how that got overturned. That was the biggest moment of the game right there.”
UMHB’s defense rose to the occasion one last time, forcing a punt that gave the Crusaders one final chance. The offense drove downfield as the clock ticked under a minute, but with 26 seconds remaining, Warhawk defensive back Thomas Wojnowski pulled down a pass from Phe, recording a game-ending interception.
“We haven’t had as many sacks through the first three games as we’ve probably had in years past, but holy cow, they came up big today,” UWW head coach Jace Rindahl said postgame of his defense, which tallied three sacks and stopped UMHB on fourth down twice in the victory. “That’s a credit to the defensive staff. They got those guys prepared to be able to play their best at the end when their best was needed.”
There was another factor at play on Saturday as well, and it had nothing to do with what happened on the field itself. It had to do with the weather around the field, which was frequented by lightning and rain for much of the morning. By the time noon, the originally scheduled kickoff time, rolled around, nobody was in the stadium, with a lightning delay at play. The delay lasted for multiple hours, with kickoff pushed back to 3 p.m. Meanwhile, both teams attempted to stay loose back in their locker rooms.
“We started this back right after Martin Luther King Day in January, and we had team development meetings with the objective to be a connected, player-led team,” Rindahl said. “That’s for moments like this [with the delay]. That’s why you want that. We intentionally work at it every day to have the players hold each other accountable. But at the same, the leadership really comes from within.”
Both teams utilized their rushing attacks as a focal point through the first two quarters of play, keeping the ball on the ground and gaining yardage behind the efforts of their respective offensive lines.
Thomas, who scored both of the Warhawks’ first-half touchdowns, accounted for 72 yards in the opening two quarters. 100 of UWW’s 171 yards of total offense in the first half came on running plays.
“It was so important,” Rindahl said of establishing the run game early. “That’s what we got to hang our hat on. We have our backup quarterback in there. So you’re managing that, but at the same time, we have to be a team that can run the ball in the second half. We didn’t do a great job of that in the fourth quarter, but we found a way to win.”
For UMHB, the rushing attack came into play in short-yardage situations, and those were abundant for The Cru through the first two quarters. On UMHB’s lone touchdown drive, which ended with 14:14 in the second quarter, Phe took the ball under center and pushed forwards three straight times from the UWW one-yard line. On third and goal, Phe fought his way into the end zone, tying the score at 7-7.
That touchdown drive came on the heels of a key defensive stop from UMHB late in the opening quarter. UWW’s offensive momentum halted with a holding call and UMHB cornerback Titus Dunk followed with a tackle of Warhawk quarterback Jason Ceniti in the backfield. Mason Cavness’ third-down tackle of Ceniti, who was scrambling while seeking a passing target downfield, forced a UWW punt, which UMHB returner Matthew Jackson brought up to the Crusaders’ 42-yard line.
Once UMHB took possession, Phe and the offense went to work. TJ Rone’s 31-yard reception put The Cru in the red zone on the 17-yard line, which led to UMHB’s first score.
The Phe-to-Rone connection proved valuable once again the third quarter, as UMHB knotted the score at 14-14. Less than five minutes into the second half, Phe, who tallied 192 passing yards, found Rone on a deep route for a 33-yard touchdown pass that capped a nine-play, 85 yard drive.
Drives such as those two were positives in the midst of the loss. UMHB’s daunting non-conference schedule is behind the Crusaders. Yes, it is the first 0-3 start in program history. Yes, Saturday marked UMHB’s first regular season loss at Crusader Stadium in program history.
But perhaps no UMHB team in history has begun a season with as challenging of a first three games as this squad. Winning the American Southwest Conference is UMHB’s only path into the postseason, and the next seven games will determine if a playoff bid is in the cards or not. And Harmon remains confident in his team’s progress.
“We have to win the conference to get in,” Harmon said. “And then, anything can happen once you’re in there. In ‘04, we played on the road every week [in the playoffs] and went to the Stagg Bowl. I think we have that talent. I really do. We just have to get it coached and we [have to be better] in game situations.”