Photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
ABILENE, Texas-UMHB’s playoff hopes were dashed on Saturday afternoon. A mix of penalties and missed opportunities is to blame.
Beneath an overcast sky in West Texas, a tight contest unfolded between No. 20 Hardin-Simmons and No. 23 UMHB. Though UMHB held a 7-3 lead through two quarters, HSU controlled the second half, outscoring the visitors from Belton 21-7 in a 24-14 victory. It is HSU’s first win over UMHB since the 2015 regular season, and just the second for the Cowboys in the last 22 meetings.
It also likely eliminates UMHB from American Southwest title contention, considering HSU would need to lose each of its final two regular season games against Austin College and ETBU, respectively, along with The Cru beating both ETBU and Howard Payne. Though possible, the likelihood of that occurrence is low. And UMHB’s chances of an at-large NCAA playoff bid are nonexistent.
“It’s really hard to believe,” UMHB running back Kenneth Cormier said when asked about the high possibility of the Crusaders not reaching the postseason.
If chalk holds, it will be the first time UMHB has not reached the NCAA playoffs since 2003, the year before the program’s first Stagg Bowl run.
“We have to get together as a staff and figure out what we’re going to do,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said of the approach to the final two games of the regular season with playoffs probably out of the picture. “I wasn’t anticipating losing this game.”
Much of the victory is a credit to HSU, even as UMHB’s miscues affected the Crusaders’ chance at victory. HSU head coach Jesse Burleson said he did not see a “change” in his team in the second half, but the success came much more often for the Cowboys in the final two quarters of play after being held to only a field goal in the first half.
“Our guys came out and executed,” Burleson commented. “We knew it was going to be 60 minutes. They probably thought the exact same thing. That’s what it came down to. Both teams played really hard.”
After HSU punted on its first possession of the third quarter, an incomplete pass from Cowboys quarterback Gaylon Glynn brought the punting unit on again. But this time, the Cowboys went charging down the field towards UMHB’s Kenneth Miller Jr. He was hit as the ball arrived, leading to HSU’s DeKeidris Bedford recovering the ball just two yards away from the end zone. As Bedford dove headfirst and pulled in the loose ball, the stands at Shelton Stadium erupted. It changed the momentum, and three plays later, running back Colton Marshall took a direct snap, running the ball one yard across the goal line.
“Special teams in this game is huge,” Burleson said. “I mean, I bet if you look over the past, however many years, whoever made the most plays on special teams and won the turnover battle ended up winning the game.
“So we knew that was going to be key to what we did. Our coaches did a phenomenal job, put the plan together and then when that opportunity came, we took advantage of it.”
Harmon also said that play was critical in setting the tone for the rest of the contest, and noted that it appeared that the ball hit an HSU player before touching Miller, which would have negated the Cowboys’ recovery at the two-yard line.
“That was the big swing in the game,” Harmon said. “They got the momentum off of that.”
HSU’s following drive–a six-play, 52-yard possession–gave the Cowboys a double-digit lead after forcing yet another UMHB punt. A 23-yard pass from Glynn to Dameon Gomes put HSU on the UMHB 29-yard line. Noah Garcia then had runs of 14, 8, and 5 yards, the last of which saw him score, putting the hosts in front, 17-7.
“It’s hard to move the ball against them,” Burleson noted. “It was definitely a battle of wills and they were trying to shut some things down. We made a few adjustments and our guys just kept playing. I’m proud of their effort.”
The third quarter swing in momentum in favor of HSU proved to be a major turning point, considering the Cowboy offense mustered just 103 yards of offense in the opening half. Just 46 of those yards came via running plays. In the second half, HSU had 97 yards on the ground.
But it was not purely the HSU offense that decided the direction of the second half. Penalties against UMHB also stacked up, leading to favorable field position for HSU and extended drives. In the game, HSU gained three first downs on penalties and UMHB picked up 14 penalties for 113 yards. It ties the number of penalties UMHB had in its season-opening loss to UW-River Falls.
“We talked at halftime,” Harmon noted, “and said, ‘It’s going to be a 60-minute game. The team that can be mentally tough and not get personal fouls is going to be the team that wins. Really disappointed that they were able to control their emotions and we weren’t.”
Down the stretch, UMHB had chances to score late after Marshall’s second rushing touchdown of the game less than a minute into the fourth quarter. Down 24-7, quarterback Isaac Phe led a touchdown drive that ended with his second rushing score of the game.
But an interception by HSU’s Brock Bujnoch on the ensuing Crusader drive kept the rally from going any further. The Cru got the ball back with just under seven minutes left but only got as far as their own 44-yard line.
A combination of missed opportunities and stellar defense highlighted the opening half for both sides, with six drives ending in punts. The Crusader defensive front forced a third down incompletion on HSU’s opening possession, bringing up a punt.
UMHB found immediate traction in the running game behind Ozias Wright, as his first run of the afternoon went for 18 yards and into HSU territory. Cormier followed with a 24-yard sprint to the Cowboys’ 7-yard line, but two incomplete passes and a false start kept UMHB out of the end zone. The 29-yard field goal attempt from Jack Bruner missed low, and the Crusaders came away without scoring.
After Phe’s first rushing touchdown in the first quarter and HSU’s field goal in the second, the opponents traded punts. Then came another empty possession for The Cru, which proved especially costly as UMHB used 15 plays to march inside the HSU 20-yard line. Three straight screen passes to Jerry Day went for positive yardage up the left sideline, as HSU’s defense struggled to contain Day and the Cru’s short passes.
A three-yard run on third down up the middle from Cormier put UMHB on the Cowboys’ 11-yard line, knocking on the door to the end zone. But the HSU defense stood tall, and on third down, Braden Hargrove hit Phe from behind as he scrambled to his right, forcing a sack and a fumble simultaneously. Though UMHB recovered the loose ball, it gave HSU momentum, and two plays later, Hargrove blocked the fifth field goal of his career, getting a hand on Cunningham’s 27-yard attempt.
“We had our chances in the first half to completely take control of the game and have the momentum like they had in the first half,” Harmon said. “And we didn’t do it.”
The Crusaders also seemed to be on pace for a score as the clock wound below a minute in the second quarter, even after a blindside block against UMHB on the punt return. A reception by TJ Rone put the offense on the HSU 35-yard line, but Phe was sacked soon after and consecutive penalties against The Cru pushed them further back. A promising possession ended in UMHB’s second punt of the half.
It was possessions like those that added up for UMHB, who had eight more first downs than HSU, yet came out on the losing end. Missed chances in the first half. Penalties in the second half. Sacks at the wrong times. Big momentum plays for the Cowboys. It culminated in the HSU crowd storming the field post game in a scene of triumph.
“This group is pretty resilient.” Burleson said. “I think a lot of people have some opinions on how some of our games have been closer than what maybe the outsiders thought they should be. But when you find a way to win, it builds confidence and unity and that’s what we’re all about.”