Photo: Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON–Back at home for the final time in 2023, UMHB was faced with a legitimate threat when it headed to the locker room at halftime on Saturday afternoon. The score between the Crusaders and visiting ETBU Tigers was knotted at 12 apiece.
Last Saturday’s defeat at the hands of rival Hardin-Simmons, a loss that essentially eliminated UMHB from playoff contention, appeared to still be contributing a week later.
“I think it’s human nature when the outlook for the playoffs is almost nonexistent,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said when asked about the sluggish offensive start. “You’re not mathematically eliminated, but you’re not in very good shape to control your own destiny.”
Hardin-Simmons officially eliminated UMHB from playoff contention with its 59-19 win over Austin College on Saturday, as the Cowboys claimed the ASC regular season title and an automatic bid to the postseason. But the focus in Belton was on UMHB’s second-half response after mustering just 99 yards of offense in the first two quarters.
As it turned out, the Crusader defense pitched a second-half shutout and the offense put nine more points on the board, earning a 21-12 victory that improved UMHB’s record to 5-4.
“I think most human beings across the world just accept, ‘Well, this is the situation I’m in and then accept it,’” Harmon said, referencing his team’s situation of playing without the postseason in the cards. “We don’t want to do that. We’re trying to fight it.”
The Cru began the second half with a key stop on special teams, as ETBU marched past midfield, but was forced to punt on fourth down. Or so it seemed. The Tigers opted for a fake punt, with Kylin Jackson taking the snap and running the ball right for a gain of five yards. But he needed six. The tackle by Trystin Brown put the ball in UMHB’s hands, and the offense went to work.
10 of the 12 plays run on the 56-yard drive were on the ground, with the only exceptions being a two-yard pass to Jerry Day Jr. and an incomplete pass from Isaac Phe. Besides that, UMHB did what it would do for the majority of the second half: run the ball with purpose.
Rushing plays accounted for 146 of UMHB’s 168 yards of offense in the second half, as ETBU’s defensive front wore down. Such was the case on this opening drive of the third quarter, as Kenneth Cormier put the Crusaders in front for the first time on a six-yard score.
“When the ball is up in the air, the wind is a little more of a factor than what you’d think,” Harmon said. “We felt we were controlling them on defense and as long as we didn’t make a bad mistake, we could win the game.”
They did just that. ETBU, too, aimed at keeping its offense to the ground, but struggled in finding the same level of success that UMHB did over the final two quarters. Paul Woodard was the leading rusher for the Tigers at 43 yards, but overall, ETBU averaged just 1.5 yards per carry. Eight sacks from the defensive front coupled with Durand Hill’s fourth-quarter interception all but sealed UMHB’s victory.
“In the second half, we definitely got better, because we’d rather be 5-4 than 4-5,” Harmon said. “I’m proud of our guys for finding a way to dig deep.”
Much of the first half was characterized by timely stops from both defenses, along with a handful of untimely miscues. ETBU had just six first downs in the opening two quarters. UMHB, not much more effective, recorded just 10.
And much like the second half, neither offense took to the air in frequent nature. ETBU’s Carlos Garibay was 6-of-12 on passing attempts. Phe was 5-of-13 passing in the first two quarters, with a handful of near interceptions, especially on the first three drives, as the offensive line struggled to contain ETBU’s pass rush.
While ETBU never actually pulled in one of Phe’s passes for a turnover, the pass deflections and pressure in the backfield made its mark. The longest pass of the first half from the Crusaders went for 16 yards on a reception by TJ Rone with just over three minutes left in the first quarter.
The Tigers, however, took the ball away from the Crusader offense in other ways. Two forced fumbles from ETBU were both recovered by the visitors from Marshall, with the second leading to a 46-yard field goal from Pedro Cavazos in the first quarter. A dropped punt snap by Edwin Lopez at the tail-end of UMHB’s first drive saw Lopez pick up the ball a split-second before an ETBU defender pulled him down at the Crusaders’ own 30-yard line.
It gave way to a feeling–and a result–much like an all-too-similar dropped punt snap in the season opener against UW-River Falls. And just like what played out on that September afternoon in Wisconsin, the opposing offense capitalized. ETBU’s eight-play, 30-yard drive ended with quarterback Carldell Beard scoring on a designed run play from three yards out.
The special teams success continued after UMHB erased the shutout midway through the second quarter. Phe capped a 60-yard drive by finding Jerry Day Jr. in the back left corner of the end zone, cutting ETBU’s lead to 10-6. But the Tigers instantly countered, as ETBU blocked the point-after field goal attempt, and Kenneth Bradley swept it up midstride. He took the ball the distance, running 85 yards in a full sprint down the sideline with the entire ETBU sideline waving him towards the end zone. Rather than UMHB cutting the deficit to 10-7, ETBU extended its lead to 12-6.
But the Crusader defense won plenty more possessions than they lost, even after the Tigers began each of their first four drives inside UMHB territory. It kept ETBU from separating the margin even further while the offense found traction. And late in the second quarter, the defensive effort played right into a favorable sequence for the offense. Garibay fired a pass that sailed straight through the hands of his intended receiver, and directly into the hands of UMHB’s Dorian Williams, who was positioned perfectly behind. Williams hesitated briefly, before charging up the right sideline. It gave the offense starting field position at ETBU’s 10-yard line.
“We practiced that play all week,” Williams commented, noting that the preparation in practice was visible throughout that key momentum-shifting play.
Wright carried the ball three straight times, scoring on the third attempt from five yards out, tying the score, 12-12. Trey Witcher’s sack on ETBU’s ensuing possession kept the Tigers off the board as halftime approached, and gave way to UMHB’s strong final two quarters.
UMHB looks ahead to its season finale in Brownwood against Howard Payne next Saturday. The Yellow Jackets are 6-3, but come off a 47-42 loss to Sul Ross State on Saturday in Alpine. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.