Photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON-Entering Saturday’s matchup against Sul Ross State, UMHB head coach Larry Harmon and the Crusaders knew that special teams would be a necessary priority.
The way it turned out, that facet of the game led to a handful of momentum-shifting plays, as UMHB prevailed, 37-13, in its third straight victory.
“We talked about how important special teams were going to be in this game.” Harmon noted. “We had to be smart.”
The first of those big special teams moments came within the first two minutes, as SRSU’s first possession drew to a close. The Lobos brought on the punting unit on fourth down, backed up deep towards their own end zone. SRSU punter Chris Ruiz mishandled the snap, and UMHB’s Nate Western got to him seconds later, tackling Ruiz in the end zone. 2-0 leads are not commonplace in college football, but in this case, Western’s tackle yielded a safety for The Cru, and a 2-0 advantage.
It was not the last time the SRSU punting unit struggled against UMHB.
Early in the fourth quarter, Solomon Hopkins raced toward Ruiz on another punt attempt, and successfully blocked it. But he did not stop there. Hopkins, a freshman, recovered the loose ball in the end zone, scoring a touchdown that made a tight 10-point game into a much more comfortable 30-13 Crusader lead.
Then, of course, there was the blocked field goal by UMHB, at the end of perhaps SRSU’s most productive second half drive.
In the third quarter, the Lobos marched from their own 18-yard line down to UMHB’s 14-yard line in six minutes, 23 seconds, relying mostly on their rushing attack. They got as close as the five-yard line, before a pair of penalties and some timely tackles from the Cru defense kept them out of the end zone. Carlos Arreola’s 31-yard attempt was then kept from reaching the goal posts by Trystin Brown, whose block spoiled the Lobos’ chance at cutting the UMHB lead back to just seven points.
SRSU nearly had a big special teams play of its own in the opening quarter, with the game still very much in question. A 27-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Cyrin Miles–making his first start of the season for the Lobos–to Isaiah Pena gave the visitors from Alpine a 7-2 advantage with 6:42 in the first. Seeking to capitalize on this newly-gained success, SRSU tried an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff…and recovered it.
But an illegal touching penalty–the Lobos made contact with the ball prior to it traveling the necessary 10 yards–erased the play. UMHB took possession and scored seven plays later on Isaac Phe’s 10-yard pass to freshman tight end Christopher Gacayan.
The turn-of-events favored The Cru, who were back in front, 9-7. But SRSU’s defense answered with a forced fumble on UMHB’s next possession; a forced fumble that led to a 40-yard field goal from Arreola and the lead.
Putting the turnover behind them, the Crusader offense was soon charging upfield again, with running back Ozias Wright gaining 32 of the 75 yards on the drive. The possession culminated in one of the game’s most remarkable catches, as Romello Cook dove towards a pass from Phe, with the quarterback scrambling away from SRSU’s defensive line. Cook extended, despite tight coverage from a Lobo defender, and pulled in the spiraling ball. The crowd erupted with cheers as Cook rose to his feet. UMHB took the lead into halftime.
“I trust my quarterback,” Cook remarked postgame. “Practice makes perfect. We made all the right adjustments this week in practice. I’m confident and just made the play.”
The first half certainly had its positives, but SRSU, playing UMHB for the final time before making its transition to NCAA D-II, remained firmly in contention. A field goal from Arreola as time expired in the second quarter made it a three-point game at halftime. Far too close for comfort.
“When you’re 2-3, and you’re up three at half, and it’s not the expectation you have, you worry about people losing confidence.” Harmon said. “I told them, ‘We need to focus on us and do all the little things because we’re hurting ourselves right now.’ And we went out and played a solid half of football.”
They shutout SRSU in the second half. The Lobos punted on three of their final four possessions, with the only exception being an instance in which they turned the ball over on downs. And UMHB’s defense recorded an interception-turned-touchdown for the second straight week when Johnny Smith-Rider picked off Miles and raced 42 yards for a score less than three minutes into the third quarter.
Throughout the majority of the contest, UMHB’s defense had to fend without Mason Cavness, a stellar defensive lineman who entered the game with 3.0 sacks and 6.0 tackles for loss. Cavness left the game with an injury on SRSU’s second drive. It had an effect, especially in the immediate aftermath, Harmon said postgame.
“He’s so important to us as far as our D-Line, and being the big brother kind of guy that everybody looks up to,” Harmon said of Cavness. “He went out and it was just shell shock. You think the biggest, baddest guy on your team won’t get hurt, and then he does, it’s a damper.”
UMHB overcame that setback, and found its rhythm in the second half. That said, the Crusaders know that it will take a more complete performance to win in the bigger games still on the regular season slate. And in the postseason as well, when that time comes.
“To win the conference, we’re going to have to play four quarters of football,” Harmon said. “We’re going to have to take the positives of this, fix the mistakes, and move on.”
UMHB hits the road and heads north next weekend, facing Austin College on Oct. 21 in a 1 p.m. contest in Sherman, Texas. Austin is 1-5 overall and 0-2 in ASC play.