BELTON — In a game filled with matchup problems for Huntingdon, Jonel Reed was the biggest, and the Mary Hardin-Baylor wide receiver capitalized to the tune of three school records.
Reed victimized the Huntingdon secondary for 10 catches for 253 yards and three touchdowns, and No. 1 UMHB was never challenged on its way to a 42-6 victory Saturday afternoon at Crusader Stadium.
Reed’s big day — combined with a defensive effort that produced four turnovers — helped the Crusaders (12-0) stretch their winning streak to 27 games, propelled them into the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division III playoffs and, most importantly, kept them on track as they seek to defend their national title.
“I’m just glad we got the win,” said Reed, who set program records for single-game and single-season yards receiving (1,117) while tying the single-game mark for touchdown catches. “The records are nice, but I just want to keep winning.”
His three touchdowns covered a total of 123 yards and all came in the first half against a Hawks defense that had no answer for the 6-foot-2 senior.
“He’s a dude,” Huntingdon coach Mike Turk said. “He’s a very talented kid, and that showed today. He’s going to be a matchup problem for a lot of people.”
All three of the touchdown passes came from senior quarterback Jase Hammack, who was 19-of-34 for 337 yards in only 2½ quarters of action. One week after totaling just 236 yards in a first-round win over No. 22 Redlands, the Crusaders amassed 508 — with 422 coming through the air — against the Hawks (8-4).
“We’re just reading the linebacker, and they were dropping him down the whole game because they didn’t want us to run it, so we threw it,” Hammack said.
A first half that included four Huntingdon turnovers ended with UMHB up 31-0.
The first two takeaways — interceptions by Keith Gipson and Jefferson Fritz — netted zero points before the Crusaders cashed in on the third. Isaiah Johnson’s strip-sack of Michael Lambert at the Hawks 28-yard line set up Hammack’s 2-yard keeper for a 10-0 UMHB lead late in the first quarter.
On the first play after Huntingdon’s best scoring opportunity of the half was thwarted when Jacob Mueller blocked a 31-yard field goal attempt, Hammack and Reed hooked up on a 77-yard catch-and-run TD and a 17-0 Crusaders advantage just 2 minutes into the second.
UMHB pulled away with 14 points in the final 2 minutes before halftime, sandwiching Hammack TD throws to Reed of 40 and 6 yards around Jayden Smith’s interception of an ill-advised Lambert pass to all but end the competitive portion of the game.
Hammack threw for 291 yards in the first half alone as the Crusaders outgained the Hawks 319-143 over the opening two quarters.
“We knew coming in that we’d have to play almost a perfect game to have a chance against these guys,” said Hungtingdon running back Eric Thomas, who came in averaging almost 100 yards a game but was limited to 57. “Having those turnovers early put us behind, and it was frustrating.”
The second of Anthony Avila’s four field goals put UMHB up 34-0 early in the third before Huntingdon finally got on the board, but even that didn’t end well for the Hawks.
After Thomas plunged in from a yard out, Joey Longoria broke through to block the extra-point kick, and Fritz scooped it up and raced the end zone for two points and a 36-6 game.
Fritz, an All-American free safety, made the move to weakside linebacker Saturday and the switch paid dividends for the Crusaders. In addition to his interception and 2-point return, the junior was in on six tackles for a UMHB defense that didn’t yield much before its reserves took over in the third quarter.
“All year long, I’ve been thinking about moving Fritzy closer to the ball,” said Crusaders coach Pete Fredenburg, whose team got a game-high 11 tackles from senior middle linebacker Tevin Jones. “Fritzy’s an incredible athlete and an incredible player. Getting him closer to the ball was pretty smart, in my opinion.”
Up next for UMHB is a quarterfinal date with No. 10 Wisconsin-Whitewater (11-1) at noon next Saturday at Crusader Stadium, where the Crusaders won last year’s semifinal 31-14 for their first victory over the Warhawks after five straight defeats.
After the passing performance against Huntingdon, Fredenburg believes his team can win games through the air.
“When they add a seventh player to the box, we’re going to throw it. That’s what we did today, so we didn’t run uphill. So then you say, ‘Well, do we throw it every time.’ The answer is yes. If a team is going to play us that way, we have to continue to throw it,” Fredenburg said.
The other piece of big news Saturday came from the other side of the playoff bracket, where No. 2 Mount Union — last season’s national runner-up and a winner over UMHB in the 2017 title game — lost 59-52 to No. 5 North Central.
In the Crusaders’ eyes, though, the departure of the perennially powerful Purple Raiders makes little difference in their grand scheme of things.
“We still have one goal. It doesn’t matter who we play,” Fritz said. “If it’s Whitewater, it doesn’t matter. If it’s St. John’s, doesn’t matter. If it would have been Mount Union, it doesn’t matter. We’re going to do what we do to get to the national championship this year.”