Photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON- There is no getting around it. UMHB and Hardin-Simmons are once again sitting tied atop the American Southwest Conference standings heading into the homestretch of the regular season. The two are on a collision course, neither having lost a conference game, and they are set for a must-see battle in Abilene on Saturday, with the 23rd-ranked Crusaders traveling west for a 1 p.m. matchup against the 20th-ranked Cowboys.
Plenty is on the line, as it is every year in the annual meeting between the league rivals. The winner will have the upper hand in the ASC title race with two weeks left in the regular season. The loser is likely to see its playoff hopes dashed.
UMHB enters this matchup coming off a 49-14 win at Austin College last Saturday, and on Monday, Crusaders head coach Larry Harmon met with the media. His weekly press conference included commentary on the victory over Austin, as well as a look ahead to what awaits The Cru on Saturday. Here are three takeaways from this week’s press conference.
Gacayan has stepped up big as a true freshman, and is a reliable target for Phe
Christopher Gacayan, a freshman tight end, was not listed on the two-deep depth chart early in the season. But as the fall progresses, the Axtell, Texas product is seeing a more significant amount of time on the field, and led UMHB with a team-high six receptions for 76 yards and three touchdowns last week. For his efforts, he was named to D3football.com’s Team of the Week on Tuesday morning.
At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, Gacayan has the size necessary to excel as a tight end in the ASC, with a solid blocking ability to go along with strong hands in the passing game. Through UMHB’s last four wins, he tallied 13 receptions for 167 yards and five touchdowns.
“Chris is just ‘next man up,’” Harmon said, referencing the fact that UMHB’s second and third-stringers are always prepared to step into a more significant role “Will McClintock is out for probably one more week. Chris has been a talented kid ever since he walked on our campus. He’s been impressive since Day 1.
“I think he was hoping he wouldn’t have to grow up as fast as he has had to, but credit to him and his mentality. He has great hands. He is big and physical. He’s a tremendous athlete.”
Harmon added that the connection between quarterback Isaac Phe and Gacayan has developed well over the last several weeks, with Phe establishing him as a sort of go-to target. It adds to UMHB’s depth in the receiving game, which has kept opposing defenses on their toes throughout conference play.
“He and Isaac are kind of getting that Mahomes-Kelce relationship, where when Isaac is in trouble, he’s looking for Gacayan now,” Harmon noted. “And Gacayan is catching the ball. It’s cool to see those two young players develop a bond and a trust in each other.”
The recent performance from the Crusader secondary is another notable area of success for UMHB through the four-game win streak
One of the highlights in Saturday’s win at Austin College was the 51-yard interception return for a touchdown by Trashawn Adams, giving UMHB a 21-7 lead. It marked the third straight week that UMHB’s defense recorded a pick-six and Dorian Williams also intercepted a pass from ‘Roos quarterback Jaylon Talton in the second half.
In fact, seven of the Crusaders’ eight interceptions this season have come in the last four games, as the secondary stepped up following a difficult start. Against UW-River Falls, Trinity, and UW-Whitewater in non-conference play, The Cru recorded just seven total pass breakups. Conversely, in the last four wins, UMHB tallied 15.
The overall success seen from the Crusader defensive backs is a positive sign and the experience at those positions is a contributing factor, Harmon said.
“Our secondary is where most of our experience is,” Harmon noted. “We have tremendous athletes back there who have played a lot of ballgames. Our expectations are to make big plays; it’s what defenses do. Our job is to defend, get turnovers and give our offense the ball. It’s what we have to do to win. We’ve done it here for a long time.
“We didn’t get very many turnovers those first three games, and they took that to heart. We’re more focused in practice, we’re playing harder, we’re doing the little things now with our technique to where we’re able to make the plays that we’re very capable of making.”
Harmon: “We could play this game anywhere in the United States and it would still be a big game”
Harmon made it clear that he expects a physical game in Abilene, considering the emotion from both teams and the approach of HSU. Plenty is on the line, as is the case in most seasons when these two meet on the gridiron. UMHB is 9-1 in the last 10 games of the series, with HSU’s last win coming in 2015. Yet the rivalry seems to have just as much intensity as it always has, and perhaps even more so this season, as the path to the playoffs for both teams lies in winning the ASC title. According to Hansen Ratings, neither UMHB nor HSU have more than a 0.1 percent chance at an at-large (Pool C) playoff bid.
“We need to be prepared to play our most complete game,” Harmon said. “It’s always a physical game. The last five or six games [between us and Hardin-Simmons], it’s been whoever had the most turnovers won the game. Fortunately for us, it’s been us [with the most turnovers]. We like having the competition because we know they’re a real physical program.”
Both teams enter the matchup ranked in the D3football.com Top 25, making this one of just two games between a pair of nationally-ranked opponents on this week’s slate. Attendance is expected to be several thousand strong in Abilene, and the atmosphere around this annual showdown, whether it be played in Belton or Abilene, has contributed to the tradition.
“It’s been one of those rivalries where both programs are very well-coached and their players and alumni care about the program,” Harmon added. “Their alumni will fight for them just like our alumni will fight for us.
“It’s one of those great things because there’s so much emotion involved in both programs. We could play this game anywhere in the United States and it would still be a big game. Everybody’s fans would be there. Everybody loves to watch Mary Hardin-Baylor and Hardin-Simmons.”