It has been a game circled on the calendars of D-III Football fans across the country for months. It is a rivalry game by pretty much every definition of the word. It is the only Top 25 matchup in the American Southwest Conference this season. And for all intensive purposes, the playoff hopes of both teams are riding on the result.
It is none other than UMHB (4-3) and Hardin-Simmons (6-1), battling for the 31st time, on Saturday in Abilene at Shelton Stadium. Get ready for a good one, because there is plenty on the line in this contest. And we break it down for you in this week’s preview, presented by The Crusader Football Alumni Association.
All-Time Series History
The Cru is 22-6 all-time against Hardin-Simmons, and currently rides a seven-game win streak into this matchup. UMHB has won every meeting between the two since a 37-19 playoff win in 2015. HSU’s last win over UMHB came in Abilene on Oct. 31, 2015. UMHB has been consistent on the road, winning 10 of the 13 matchups played in Abilene. Last year’s contest saw UMHB pull away late in the first half for a 50-20 win over the Cowboys.
A look at The Cru
UMHB began its season with one of the nation’s toughest schedules, facing UW-River Falls (currently ranked No. 7 in the country), Trinity (currently ranked No. 6 in the country), and UW-Whitewater (currently ranked No. 5 in the country). That yielded an 0-3 start, but the positive effects of that tough competition have been revealed in ASC play. UMHB is 3-0 against league opponents, and holds a four-game win streak.
UMHB’s offense has generally not been the quickest out of the gate, but once they get going, the Crusaders are difficult to stop. A 21-point second quarter last week against Austin College revealed that, as did a 30-point second half against McMurry. Much of that goes back to a balanced offensive attack and excellent ball distribution in the passing game. 10 different players caught a pass against Austin College, including tight end Christopher Gacayan, who had six catches for 76 yards. That depth, and the involvement from the tight ends and running backs in addition to the receivers, has kept opposing defenses on its toes. UMHB ranks No. 2 in the ASC in offensive passing efficiency.
Meanwhile, a defense that had its early struggles is entering this matchup having allowed just three touchdowns in the last two games.The Crusaders allow the fewest yards per game of any defense in the league, at 258.6 yards. Much of that is a credit to UMHB’s efforts against the pass, giving up just 143.6 yards per game through the air. Two of The Cru’s last three opponents (TLU and Austin College) tallied fewer than 100 passing yards against UMHB.
3 Players to Watch
QB Isaac Phe: Phe has developed remarkably well over the course of the season, and posted a solid stat line against Austin, recording a career-high in completions (20), along with 219 passing yards and four touchdowns. Through seven games, Phe has thrown for 1,238 yards with a 60.4 percent completion rate.
TE Christopher Gacayan: Gacayan garnered headlines–and rightfully so–after his three-touchdown performance last week. But the freshman tight end has shown his ability to be a reliable target in the passing game over the last few contests, with multiple receptions AND at least one touchdown against Texas Lutheran, Sul Ross State, and Austin College. Though HSU is likely to key in on Gacayan a bit more after his role in UMHB’s win last Saturday, look for him to contribute to the Crusader offense against the Cowboys.
DE Abraham Ndofor: The defensive end has taken charge as of late, and comes off a game in which he tallied two solo tackles against Austin College. He has three sacks this season, and should play a key role in putting pressure on HSU’s offense in the backfield. He is quick off the line of scrimmage and has five tackles for loss this season.
The Cowboys enter this matchup following a statement 55-7 win over Sul Ross State last week, and hold a 6-1 overall record with a 3-0 mark in conference play. For quite some time, HSU has made an effort to breakthrough in this rivalry, but has come up short on the losing end. However, in 2023, the pieces are there for the Cowboys, who are led by senior quarterback Gaylon Glynn, senior running backs Noah Garcia and Colton Marshall, and fifth-year senior linebacker Matt Mitchell. That experience has proven to be pivotal for HSU throughout this season, and with both Glynn and Mitchell healthy after missing a handful of games at the beginning of league play, HSU will be at full strength against The Cru.
Question marks at wide receiver made some doubt of the Cowboy offense in the preseason, but sophomore Tailon Garrett (36 receptions, 442 yards) and junior K.J. Peoples (35 receptions, 346 yards) have stepped up in a big way. Both have been consistent receiving targets for Glynn, as HSU averages 209 passing yards per game. But the real key to HSU’s offensive traction comes in the run game, where the Cowboys lead the ASC with 216.4 rushing yards per contest. Look for the matchup between the HSU rushing attack and UMHB’s defensive front to be a major factor in the outcome.
Defensively, the Cowboys, much like The Cru, have faced their fair share of successful offenses, with a 28-21 win at now-No. 4 UW-La Crosse standing out. In that contest, HSU held UWL dual-threat quarterback Keyser Helterbrand to 196 passing yards and 107 rushing yards and recorded three fourth-quarter turnovers that kept the Cowboys in front. It will take a similar showing from the defense against UMHB if HSU is to compete in this game. The turnover battle has often been a deciding factor, and entering this week, HSU has nine interceptions and eight forced fumbles, six of which were recovered by the Cowboys. The HSU defense allows just 19.9 points per game and is the No. 2 passing defense in the ASC behind UMHB, surrendering 180.4 passing yards per contest.
3 Players To Watch
RB Noah Garcia: Garcia is the top running back in the ASC’s best rushing offense, and individually leads the conference in a number of stat categories. A dynamic ballcarrier who possesses remarkable speed, Garcia had a 54-yard touchdown run at Sul Ross State last week, and has a total of 586 rushing yards on the year. He averages 6.4 yards per carry and has eight touchdowns. He has also shown an ability to catch passes out of the backfield, with nine receptions for 118 yards and a score.
RB Colton Marshall: Garcia and Marshall complement each other in the run game, and HSU’s offensive coordinator Jeff Whitehead utilizes each of their unique skill sets especially well. Expect to see Marshall more often in short-yardage situations, especially near the goal line, as he is a strong 6-foot, 225-pound downhill runner that has scored nine touchdowns for HSU this season. The Abilene native has 489 rushing yards this season.
LB Matt Mitchell: A fifth-year senior, Mitchell’s presence is a difference-maker for the Cowboy defense. He was unable to make the trip to Endicott due to appendicitis, and missed HSU’s next two games as he recovered. But against Sul Ross, Mitchell returned to the field and led the team with five tackles. An All-America selection by the AP and AFCA last season, Mitchell causes havoc for opposing offenses with his ability to defend the run and the pass well.
WATCH: Livestream available on hsuathletics.com.
LISTEN: Ward Whites and Jon Wallin will once again have the call over the airwaves for the UMHB broadcast on Fox Sports Central Texas. Listen on 93.9 FM in Temple/Belton or on http://listen.streamon.fm/ktonam.
STATS: Live stats can be found on hsuathletics.com.
Week 9 ASC Schedule
Sul Ross State at ETBU, 1:00 p.m., Marshall, Texas
Texas Lutheran at Howard Payne, 1:00 p.m., Brownwood, Texas
Austin College at McMurry, 1:00 p.m., Abilene, Texas
UMHB at Hardin-Simmons, 1:00 p.m., Abilene, Texas