BELTON — The American Southwest Conference standings looked vastly different than what most people expected through the first four weeks of the league schedule.
Sure, No. 1-ranked and defending national champion Mary Hardin-Baylor (4-0, 3-0) sits in first place. But the Crusaders share the top spot with Texas Lutheran (3-1, 3-0), which is coming off a 38-27 upset of No. 7 Hardin-Simmons after being picked to finish fourth in the conference’s preseason poll.
Throw in last Saturday’s victory by usual bottom-dwelling Sul Ross State against Southwestern, and suddenly there’s some newfound parity in the ASC.
“I think it’s pretty cool that everybody in the conference is getting better,” UMHB coach Pete Fredenburg said Monday. “I think that’s a tribute to all the coaches in the conference that instead of kicking us out, they’ve tried to be competitive.”
The latter part of Fredenburg’s remark was a subtle dig at the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which voted to kick out perennial power St. Thomas.
It’s doubtful the ASC would ever vote to eliminate UMHB based on of its football success, especially because the Crusaders’ winning ways are part of the reason the conference has improved from top to bottom.
“I would guess we have something to do with it, and I know that sounds egotistical,” Fredenburg said. “But if you’re going to win in this conference, you have to be able to compete.”
UMHB — winner of 14 straight ASC titles — posted its 29th consecutive conference victory with a 79-0 thrashing of McMurry over the weekend. It was the second straight dominant performance for the Crusaders, who shut out Howard Payne 65-0 the previous week.
Next up for UMHB is Saturday afternoon’s home game against East Texas Baptist (2-2, 2-1).
“Obviously, it gets harder and harder as we go. You talk about the process, and we’re in a good spot right now. We’ll see how it parlays this week,” Fredenburg said. “We’re growing and we’ve taken two giant steps because we played with incredible effort. The thing that bothered me was that we knew we were going to play a lot of guys, and some of those guys didn’t execute and do the things we wanted them to do. Those guys need a chance to play and, given the opportunity, they need to go out there and really perform.”
In his first start of the season since returning from ankle surgery, UMHB senior quarterback Jase Hammack was 10-of-16 passing for 217 yards and four touchdowns to go with a 1-yard scoring run. It was enough to earn him ASC offensive player of the week honors.
The Crusaders also had two players — freshman Hayden Haas and senior Jonel Reed — with more than 100 yards receiving, and UMHB averaged 7 yards per rushing attempt.
“I think (Jase) played well and threw the ball well. I was most impressed with a back-shoulder throw of his. That’s the most difficult pass to defend,” Fredenburg said. “Our receivers did a great job of getting off the line against press-man coverage.”
UMHB limited McMurry to only 2 yards passing and 54 yards overall. Over the last two games, the Crusaders allowed totals of only 12 first downs, 134 yards and zero points.
Two of many catalysts for the UMHB defense have been junior end E’Monte Smith and senior linebacker Tevin Jones.
In his second career start, Smith had 3½ tackles for losses and 2½ sacks — including a strip sack — against McMurry and earned ASC defensive player of the week honors.
Jones made the switch from weakside linebacker to middle linebacker and had a team-high 12 tackles, pushing his team-leading season total to 43.
“(Smith) has always played well but had a little problem in the past making some calls. He plays with such a great motor and has been a real asset for our defense,” Fredenburg said. “Tevin is really coming on and played his best ballgame against McMurry. We put him back in the middle because he’s so natural in there, and he does a great job of calling the defense.”
In the rout of McMurry, the Crusaders got seven touchdowns from players who weren’t with the program last season. Haas scored three times, transfer junior receiver Brenton Martin had two TDs, and freshman quarterback Tommy Bowden and freshman running back Jo’Vel McDaniel had one apiece.
Fredenburg likes the scoring production but pointed out that some of the new players are still learning the program’s culture.
“We work really hard to get guys to be good teammates and give of themselves for what’s best for the team. It’s like Brenton Martin,” Fredenburg said. “He’s obviously very gifted. Like everybody that comes in, though, I like them to be a team player and that means doing some things that you really don’t want to do. Receivers want to catch passes. They don’t want to go block. I want them to go block, too. When he does that, I’ll be a little happier.”
Facing the Tigers
ETBU averages 390 yards and 32 points per game with an offense that lives and dies with mobile senior quarterback Brian Baca, who has thrown for 926 yards and nine TDs this season.
“Their quarterback is dynamic and has always been a thorn in our side,” Fredenburg said. “We want to put pressure on him, but he does a good job of scrambling and finding some open lanes. It’s really critical for us to deny that. He’s the catalyst of their football team and makes their offense work.
“Defensively, they have size and the things necessary to play good defense. This will be a big challenge, probably the biggest challenge of the year for us.”
UMHB won last year’s meeting 50-15 in Marshall, where the teams combined for 23 penalties totaling 257 yards in a game that featured several personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct flags.
Fredenburg hopes that aspect of the matchup is in the past.
“Last year, we lined up for the national anthem and their seniors were up (on the hill) and ran in front of us after the national anthem, mouthing off at us,” he said. “I asked the coach afterward, ‘Why in the world would you do that? That’s so classless.’ He said, ‘Well, I can’t control those guys.’
“That senior class is gone, and hopefully these guys are a little better.”