BELTON- The conclusion of the 2023 season for UMHB Football is in sight. Only a week of practice remains for a program that is used to its regular season finale being a tune-up for the NCAA playoffs.
But not this year. Saturday’s road duel at Howard Payne (6-3, 3-3 ASC) marks the final time this year’s Crusaders take the field, doing so as a 5-4 team that has endured its share of ups and downs throughout the last 11 weeks since kicking it all off at UW-River Falls in Week 1.
Brownwood is notoriously a tough place to play–last year’s matchup saw The Cru eke out a 27-24 victory on a late Anthony Avila field goal–and UMHB needs to be ready. A 6-4 mark for 2023 remains the goal, as is the idea of building confidence and momentum for next season.
UMHB head coach Larry Harmon spoke about that in his press conference on Monday, and here are three takeaways from that conversation with the media.
One of the main objectives against HPU? Build momentum for 2024
Without the playoffs to look ahead to, the focus shifts to 2024, and has already shifted, even as the Crusaders progress through the tail end of the 2023 slate. Complacency, even with the circumstances considered, is not the approach the leaders of the program want to take. Instead, both last week’s contest against ETBU, and this week’s at HPU, are going to be used in an effort to build momentum entering the offseason.
“What we’re trying to do [through] these last two games is build some momentum, build some confidence to lead us into 2024,” Harmon said. “That’s where the coaching staff is. That’s where some of the guys are. When you’re eliminated from the playoffs, it’s really easy to say, ‘This is where we are. It is what it is. There’s not much I can do about it.’ We don’t like that. We want to change our situation.
“We know it’s uncommon and that’s what we’re fighting. I thought the second half [against ETBU] we did that. The question will be, can we go out and do it on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday to give us confidence for Saturday? That’s going to be the real test. That’s what we’ll find out tomorrow; Who are our core guys that really want to finish this thing? And then who are the guys that are still kind of accepting the situation we’re in?”
Discipline will be a factor in Saturday’s winner, Harmon says
Howard Payne, led by senior quarterback Landon McKinney, has one of the ASC’s top offensive attacks. The Yellow Jackets score at a high clip, leading the league in points per game, with 37.1. McKinney throws for an average of 322.1 yards per game, which also ranks No. 1 in the conference, and receivers Gus Charles and Jordan Carroll both average above six catches per game.
UMHB’s defensive line enters this matchup after an outstanding, eight-sack performance against ETBU last Saturday. The eight sacks doubled UMHB’s previous season-high of four, set two weeks prior against Austin.
Harmon was asked about UMHB’s defensive line and that aspect of the matchup against HPU as well as the Yellow Jackets as a team.
“They’re probably a little more efficient at screens and draws and trying to slow that pass rush down,” Harmon said. “It’s going to be a little bit of a harder job. They’re not going to just let us put pressure on the quarterback like ETBU did.”
HPU comes off a 47-42 loss to Sul Ross State last Saturday, despite McKinney throwing for 471 yards. At the beginning of conference play, this was the same team that nearly shocked Hardin-Simmons in Abilene, keeping it close until late, when HSU pulled out a 40-33 win.
“It’s going to come down to what team is going to be the most disciplined team on Saturday because we’ve both shown times of how well we can play when we come out and are disciplined. And we’ve also shown how bad we can be when we aren’t very disciplined.”
Flipping the switch against ETBU went back to being physical on both sides of the ball
In taking a look back on the 21-12 win over ETBU on Saturday, Harmon was asked about his team seemingly flipping the switch late in the second quarter and into the second half. ETBU went up 10-0, but was then outscored 21-2 by UMHB. One of the bigger things he noted was the physical nature that the Crusaders played with in the second half. The offensive line took charge with intensity, paving the way for 194 rushing yards against an ETBU defense that had its way early. And UMHB intercepted two ETBU passes, taking the momentum away from the visiting Tigers.
“We just stopped turning the ball over and started executing on special teams,” Harmon said. “We started playing. There’s no big secret there. We came out flat on offense and special teams and for a quarter and a half, couldn’t do anything.
“But I give all the credit to the kids. The adjustments weren’t nearly as big of a factor in why we turned the game around, as much as our kids taking a gut check and fighting their way back. We were by far the most physical team in the second half, and that’s what we’re going to hang our hat on and move on to Howard Payne with.”