BELTON — Huntingdon lost two of its first three games, getting a pair of wakeup calls that forced the Hawks to make some corrections and helped propel them into the NCAA Division III playoffs.
Mary Hardin-Baylor has yet to lose but hasn’t turned in the type of performances reminiscent of its runs to the last three national championship games.
Both teams will find out if they learned all the lessons from earlier struggles when No. 1 UMHB (11-0) hosts Huntingdon (8-3) at noon today in a second-round playoff game at Crusader Stadium.
“You have to rise to the occasion in the playoffs, and I don’t believe we did that last week,” said Crusaders coach Pete Fredenburg, whose team didn’t move the ball with any consistency in a 43-14 first-round victory over No. 22 Redlands. “The energy has to be bolstered during the playoffs. Everybody agreed that we didn’t play inspired and didn’t play the way we should play.”
While Fredenburg hopes to see his squad turn the corner today, Huntingdon — from Montgomery, Ala. — already adjusted its path once this season.
After losses of 45-13 to Birmingham-Southern and 44-14 to Wisconsin-Oshkosh dropped the Hawks to 1-2, they righted the ship and won seven of their next eight — with only a 23-7 defeat against North Carolina Wesleyan — to reach the playoffs’ second round for the second time in program history.
“More than anything we learned that when we don’t do what we’re supposed to do, we’re not very good. We made a lot of mistakes on both sides that cost us dearly in those two games,” said 16th-year Huntingdon coach Mike Turk, who has the Hawks in the postseason for the fourth time. “We used our open date to correct those mistakes and to prove a point to our guys that if we execute like we’re supposed to, things work a lot better.”
Huntingdon, which is coming off a 27-24 road win over No. 19 Berry in the first round, employs a balanced offense that averages 411 yards and 35 points per game. It’s led by senior quarterback Michael Lambert (2,236 yards passing, 27 touchdowns, eight interceptions), junior running back Eric Thomas (1,079 yards rushing, 13 TDs) and senior wide receiver Otis Porter (53 catches, 795 yards, 13 TDs).
“They have good players. It was no accident that they beat Berry,” Fredenburg said.
The Hawks will face a Crusaders defense that gives up averages of just 220 yards and 8.2 points per game and has forced 35 turnovers.
The flipside features a Huntingdon defense yielding 384 yards and 26 points an outing against a UMHB offense averaging 405 yards and 51 points.
“You worry about matchups,” Turk said. “None of our guys have played against any of their guys. You worry if you’re going to be able to handle the matchups to have a chance to win the game.”
Today’s clash isn’t the first meeting between the Crusaders and Hawks. In its only previous trip to the second round, Huntingdon fell 43-23 at UMHB in 2015.
Turk believes the last meeting helps only to a certain degree.
“Not a single guy will play for us Saturday that played in that game four years ago,” he said. “The fact that some of our coaches have been there before and are familiar with the stadium will help some. It’s a big-time environment and that’s exciting, but it can cause issues from a player’s perspective.”
Regardless of environment and home-field advantage, Fredenburg knows his team will have to perform better today than it did last week if it wants to stretch its unbeaten streak to 27 games, earn a national quarterfinal matchup with No. 10 Wisconsin-Whitewater or No. 17 Wartburg and stay on track to defend its national title.
“(Huntingdon) plays really hard, and we’re not going to be able to beat them if we play like we did (last week),” he said. “We have to improve our performance immensely. We have to match their energy level.”
As for the Hawks, they want to stick to the things that helped them rebound from their early struggles and make the most of the chance to upset the top-ranked team.
“You don’t get many opportunities to play the No. 1 team in the country,” Turk said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity, but they’re not ranked that for no reason.”