Photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON-The second phase of the 2023 season has arrived for the 23rd-ranked UMHB Football team.
American Southwest Conference action kicks off for The Cru on Saturday night under the lights of Crusader Stadium in UMHB’s 6 p..m homecoming game against McMurry. With an 0-3 start behind them, the Crusaders are focused on claiming the ASC Title that lies at the end of the regular season. It is UMHB’s only path to the NCAA playoffs, and it is not necessarily an unfamiliar position for The Cru, who entered the postseason with a 9-1 record in 2022.
“We were 1-1 [after non-conference play] and entered conference play saying, ‘The only guarantee to get in is [by] winning our conference,” Harmon said of last year’s team. “We have to win out.’ That was the only true guarantee, because if we lost a conference game, we would have needed an [at-large bid], and you just don’t know.”
“The only difference is that we’re 0-3. We just came off our best performance against a Top 5 opponent. And we’re in that same situation. We know we have to win the next seven to guarantee ourselves a spot in the playoffs.”
With the Warhawks of UW-Whitewater in the rearview mirror, and the Warhawks of McMurry as the next challenge ahead, Harmon met with the media at his weekly press conference on Monday. Here are three takeaways.
Despite tough start, UMHB’s 2004 season is a means of inspiration
2004 is a notable year in the program’s history, as it marked the year of UMHB’s first Stagg Bowl appearance. But it was more than that. Due to a loss to Hardin-Simmons during the regular season, the Crusaders played all four playoff games leading up to the Stagg Bowl on the road. And despite that adversity, UMHB pushed through.
There are certainly parallels between that 2004 team and the situation the Crusaders find themselves in currently. While that team earned an at-large bid, and this year’s squad needs to essentially win out the remainder of the regular season to reach the playoffs, both teams faced challenges. And both had to figure out a proper response to the setback.
“I can remember Hardin-Simmons beating the brakes off us, especially running the football,” Harmon said, looking back. “We held a team meeting and the coaches talked about what they were willing to do and about how bad they felt. Then we said what we were prepared to do [as coaches].
“I’ll never forget [senior fullback] Chad Starnes stood up, he was emotional, and said what he was prepared to do. We had a recommitment to the rest of the season, no matter where it led us.”
Harmon said he has seen a similar type of commitment within this team, who is focused on reaching the playoffs and making the most of the opportunity at hand.
“There’s been similarities to this year and that year, especially after yesterday just talking about the great opportunity we have before us and the type of talent we have on our team,” Harmon added. “But at the same time, we understand that it’s not just going to happen. We have to work hard. We’re not going to be able to waste a day. Every single practice counts. Every single drill counts.
“And that there needs to be a new commitment in order for us to achieve what we need to achieve. Because if we take a week off or think somebody isn’t worth our best effort, we’ll get beat again and our season is over. So I felt like that’s exactly what happened yesterday in our team meeting with the guys. I feel confident with where we are right now.”
Phe’s development and work ethic have helped him improve as UMHB’s starting QB
Isaac Phe may have entered Week 1 as UMHB’s third-string quarterback, but the sophomore is quickly displaying his skill set, and proving that he belongs. Through three games, he has thrown for 520 yards on 38 completions, with three touchdowns and three interceptions. Harmon noted that he has room to improve as the signal caller, but his work ethic speaks for itself.
“We all have room to grow, we all have to get better than what we are today,” Harmon said. “The great thing about Isaac is he knows it. He comes in and works hard. I think the kids just appreciate how hard he’s working. More than even his play, our kids are really impressed with how he prepares for each week and his positive attitude.”
Harmon added that he and the coaching staff are “pleased” with Phe’s progress, especially considering the type of defenses he has gone up against in his two games as the starter. Both Trinity and UW-Whitewater have showcased their defensive ability against top-level competition this season, and certainly provided a pair of formidable tests for Phe.
“He’s already played against a Top 5 team and a team that’s known for great defense,” Harmon said in reference to UW-Whitewater. “I thought Isaac played really well. We’re excited about what’s in front of us and what opportunities we have.”
Running the quarterback sneak
One aspect of Saturday’s game offensively that involved Phe, outside of the passing attack, was the quarterback sneak play. Needing just a yard or so for a first down, Phe would take the snap under center and push forwards behind the strong offensive line. UMHB ran it three straight times from the goal line early in the second quarter, and Phe scored on the third attempt. The Crusaders also ran it multiple times on various third and fourth downs when the yardage needed for a first down was one yard or so. One such play midway through the fourth quarter resulted in a key fumble recovered by UW-Whitewater.
“We were in a fourth-and-one situation and felt forward progress was stopped,” Harmon said of the QB sneak that turned into a fumble. “The officials didn’t think it was. [Isaac] stuck the ball out and a guy knocked it out of his hand. All of a sudden, you have a fumble in a critical situation.
“So we need to look at that and decide, ‘Is quarterback sneak on fourth-and-one from the 30-yard line the best option for us, or should we be getting in some other kind of heavy formation and just letting a running back run with it?’
“Those are the decisions that we as coaches have to make. Coach Padron and I have talked a long time about what we’ll do in those kinds of situations. Down on the goal line, I’m absolutely okay with it, because the ball just has to cross the goal line. But we’re going to readdress some of the things we’re doing on fourth-and-one and third-and-one to get that extra yard.”