Photo: Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON-The 2023 season for UMHB Football ended this past Saturday in Brownwood, where many of the team’s seniors played their final games for The Cru. And they went out with a win.
UMHB took down Howard Payne in a fairly convincing fashion, winning 35-10, as the Crusaders finished the season 6-4 overall and 5-1 in American Southwest Conference play. The focus now shifts to 2024, and developing the returning talent for a hopeful return to the national conversation next fall.
With the season wrapped up, UMHB head coach Larry Harmon spoke with reporters for the final time in 2023 on Monday. Here are three takeaways from that press conference.
Thoughts from the win in Brownwood
With HPU having pushed UMHB to the brink last season, as the Crusaders won narrowly, 27-24, winning by 25 was a positive finish. The special teams unit saw Trashawn Adams block a field goal attempt, Edwin Lopez averaged 47.5 yards per punt, and he also converted on all five PATs. Defensively, UMHB held an HPU offense that averaged 384.9 passing yards per game to 315 yards, and just 353 yards of total offense. Offensively, Isaac Phe threw for four touchdowns and things clicked early after UMHB started slow offensively a week prior against ETBU.
“I thought defensively we held them,” Harmon said. “They’re the No. 2 pass offense in D-III football, and we held them way under their average. Our defensive line did a great job of getting after the quarterback and were able to contain those guys. They’re really efficient on offense.
“We came out fast. Our offense put 21 on them real quick in the first quarter. So all your fears as a coach when you’re 5-4, and it’s the last game of the year and all that of not going out and performing, I thought our kids did a great job of going out and performing really well and played incredibly hard for their teammates and seniors.”
Revisiting the focus towards increased leadership
One of Harmon’s recurring points, especially in the weeks following the Hardin-Simmons loss and likely elimination from playoff contention, surrounded the leadership aspect of the program. Harmon noted that he was looking for leadership over the final two games of the season, players who could help carry the team into the 2024 season.
“I’m really on the search for who’s going to rise and who’s going to bow their neck,” Harmon had said two days after the HSU loss. “Who’s going to say, ‘Enough is enough and we’re going to right the ship’ as far as leadership.”
With those final two games in the rearview mirror, and 2024 in full focus, Harmon was asked about his thoughts on that aspect of the end of the regular season. Additionally, how much of an emphasis will the continued development of leadership be entering spring practice?
“For me, that’s the No. 1 emphasis as far as I need to do a better job of teaching and mentoring our unity council to be better leaders,” Harmon said. “Obviously there were some inefficiencies in what I did last year, because I thought our leadership this year was lacking. It’s probably not all the kids. It has to come to education through me.
“I did think that the last two weeks, our seniors that were on our unity council did a great job. So I’m excited about that, and that’s all you can hope for in those last two games. To get some positive leadership going on and some good modeling for your younger kids to see what [that leadership] looks like.”
Learning experiences from 2023 include thoughts on scheduling approach
There were plenty of learning experiences along the way this season, as UMHB endured more ups and downs from a win-loss standpoint that the program had in quite a while. Those learning experiences can be a positive moving into the future, as Harmon has noted. When asked about what he learned as a coach through this season, Harmon first went to the schedule, and more specifically, the decision to put three Top 10 opponents on the slate in the first three weeks of the season. It yielded an 0-3 start for the Crusaders.
“Well…don’t schedule three top 10 teams back-to-back-to-back in the first three weeks of the schedule, I guess,” Harmon responded. “We knew that we were going to have it tough. It’s just kind of the situation we’re in because of our success and because of our geographic location.
“The thing I learned is that we have great kids. We were really, really young. And you know, I thought they did a great job of persevering. We knew we had to win the conference in order to get into the playoffs and we didn’t.”
He further elaborated on the scheduling note, especially in light of yesterday’s NCAA playoff announcement. Amongst other notables, Saint John’s, ranked No. 16 in the country, did not get into the 32-team field with an 8-2 record, the second-best strength of schedule in the country, and two regionally-ranked wins. It is not hard to draw the comparisons to UMHB’s situation this year if things had gone a slightly different direction early on. UMHB too, played incredibly tough opponents right out of the gate, and faced four regionally-ranked teams this season. At the end of the day, without a near impeccable win-loss record, the decision to play the nation’s best in non-conference play was not rewarded in the way many anticipated it would.
“When it all comes down to it, the decision I have to make, as the guy who schedules the games is, ‘Is it more beneficial to go out and play Whitewater, Saint John’s, those kinds of teams? Or go play an NAIA school or a Division II school?’
“[The NAIA or D2 game] still doesn’t really count for playoffs, but you’re still pushed into a situation where it comes down to winning the conference, anyway. Because with only four Pool C teams, there were a lot of really good teams that didn’t get in. And strength of schedule wasn’t really a factor. It came down to D3 wins, in-region wins, and then strength-of-schedule. So there’s not a high emphasis on strength of schedule as far as making the playoff bracket. It’s all about winning the conference. So I got a better lesson in that.
“I still believe playing tough teams early shows you where you’re at with your team and points out your weaknesses, and helps you, as a coach, hone in on things that you need to fix earlier. But I’m just proud of how our guys continued to fight and were able to finish out the season strong.”