BELTON- UMHB’s first three conference games have been a sort of farewell tour for The Cru, facing a trio of opponents who will be departing the American Southwest Conference within the next two seasons.
That trend continues on Saturday in Sherman, Texas, where UMHB is looking for its fourth straight win in its final ASC meeting against Austin College. The ‘Roos will be heading back to the SCAC–the conference in which all of the institution’s other sports compete–starting next fall.
“It’s just the next step for us,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said. “If we want to have a chance to be in the playoffs, we know that this is the most important game that we’ve played this year.”
On Monday morning, Harmon met with the media at his weekly press conference. Here are three takeaways.
Preparing for Austin College a little different this time around
The Austin College ‘Roos look quite a bit different schematically on offense this year, as opposed to in years past. For quite some time, AC was the lone run-heavy team in the American Southwest Conference, utilizing the old-fashioned triple-option offense and rarely throwing the football. Last season, the ‘Roos averaged 182.1 rushing yards per game. Comparatively, they had only 33.3 passing yards per contest.
This season, under head coach Tony Joe White, AC has taken a different approach. With freshman quarterback Jaylon Talton having taken the majority of the recent snaps, the ‘Roos are much more balanced. They average 42.6 rushing attempts per game and 27.1 passing attempts. Through six games, AC has thrown for 1,039 yards; that is triple the number of passing yards tallied in 10 games in 2022.
“They have a really talented quarterback that is able to throw and run,” Harmon said of Talton. “He’s a good dual-threat guy. They have two big backs. And they’re able to scheme people up, and find holes in the coverage. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Though preparing for AC’s offense will have its differences this time around, as Harmon noted, there is a hint of familiarity. White previously head coached at Birmingham-Southern, who faced UMHB in the Second Round of the 2021 playoffs. Of course, Harmon was UMHB’s defensive coordinator in that contest, and developed a good understanding of the way BSC’s offense worked leading up to that playoff battle.
‘Fortunately for us, we got to defend him in 2021 when he was at Birmingham-Southern, and he’s doing a lot of the same stuff that he did when he was in charge of that program,” Harmon noted. “They’re doing a much better job of executing, moving the ball. They’re much improved.”
Dual-threat QB provides challenge, but not uncommon situation for the UMHB Defense
Containing a quarterback that can both throw it downfield and run with some sort of consistency is not the easiest of tasks for a defense. Talton has demonstrated that ability, throwing for over 100 yards in his last three games, and running for at least 30 in his last two, including a 66-yard effort on 21 rushing attempts at Howard Payne last week.
UMHB is well-versed in this style of quarterback play, however. In the season opener, The Cru faced one of the nation’s top dual-threat signal callers in UW-River Falls’ Kaleb Blaha. Last week, Sul Ross State gave freshman Cyrin Miles the start, and Miles demonstrated quickness in the pocket, often scrambling away from UMHB’s defensive linemen as he looked downfield for an open passing target.
“Anytime you have a dual-threat quarterback, your pass rush lanes need to be a little cleaner than we were Saturday,” Harmon said. “And we need to do a better job as coaches with scramble drills.
“A lot of Sul Ross’ passing yards came off of [the quarterback] scrambling around, and a guy coming out of coverage. I just call it the pick-and-roll. The quarterback pulls the defender out and throws the ball to the guy he wasn’t defending. We had some mistakes in that area Saturday that we need to get cleaned up. That’s going to be a big part of our preparation this week.”
Experience never hurts, and with a defense that continues to show improvement in various areas, the lessons learned against Miles and SRSU should pay dividends in Saturday’s matchup in Sherman.
“We definitely think Sul Ross will help us be better this week against Austin College than we were last week,” Harmon added. “That’s what we’re moving forward to. We have a big challenge ahead of us, but we have confidence in our defense and we think that’s a strength of our team. We just need to keep getting better.”
“Next-Man-Up” mentality continues to be a foundational aspect of UMHB’s success
UMHB has earned contributions from a number of young players throughout the first six games of this season, a testament to the preparation and mentality found within this program. Developing talent and utilizing its depth on the roster have been two cornerstones of the program throughout its 25-year history.
Look no further than on Saturday, as freshman Christopher Gacayan earned the start at tight end and tallied 54 receiving yards and a touchdown. And even after standout defensive lineman Mason Cavness exited the game with an injury on SRSU’s second drive, UMHB had several players take charge in the second half on the defensive front.
“Everybody has to know that they’re one play away from being the starter,” Harmon said. “You need to be ready to get in there.”
Part of that approach has come from the coaching staff. But another key element of carrying out the “next-man-up” mentality is the player-led foundation of the program, with the starters not only focused on their own improvement, but also helping the No. 2 and No. 3 players at their position stay poised and prepared.
“Our starters do a great job of talking to their backups about, ‘You’re one play away and if something happens to me, you need to be ready, and this is the standard and what’s expected of you.’ We take pride in being a player-led team. That’s why we work so hard in the spring, developing the leadership of our team with our unity council. And they have to carry it on and get the guys to buy in.”