Crusaders

UMHB quarterback Kyle King (17) throws a pass to Aphonso Thomas in the Crusaders’ semifinal win Saturday at Wisconsin-Whitewater.

BELTON — Any concerns that the Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders might spend too much time celebrating their semifinal win were put to rest early Monday.

“At 6:30 this morning, we had three defensive linemen show up to watch film. That says a lot,” Crusaders head coach Pete Fredenburg said Monday.

And what it says is that it’s championship week for No. 2 UMHB (14-0) and No. 1 North Central (13-0), which square off at 6 p.m. Friday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio, in the Stagg Bowl to determine the NCAA Division III national champion.

A UMHB field house that is typically somewhat quiet on Mondays — the players’ day off every week of the season until now — bustled with activity as coaches worked quickly to install a game plan before the first practice of Stagg Bowl week.

“There’s lots of things going on this week,” Fredenburg said. “It’s exciting to go to the Stagg Bowl, but it’s more important that you go to the Stagg Bowl with the confidence to win it. You want to enjoy every minute of it, but the reality is that you have to play well and execute well, especially against a great team like North Central.

“You have to do the fundamental things to be successful and win.”

Along with the teams’ obligatory media sessions that begin Wednesday in Canton, players from both squads will get a chance to tour the Pro Football Hall of Fame and enjoy an evening of dining and games at Dave & Buster’s.

Almost every minute of the squads’ time is accounted for, but North Central coach Jeff Thorne enjoys some of the perks of championship week as his team seeks its second straight national title.

“I’m excited for our guys to have that opportunity to walk through the Hall of Fame. It’s a neat experience,” Thorne, whose program won the 2019 Stagg Bowl before the 2020 season was canceled because of the pandemic, said Monday from the Cardinals’ campus in Naperville, Ill. “What a great opportunity to play for a national championship — with a chance to go back-to-back — and do it in Hall of Fame Stadium.”

Road to Canton

UMHB, the 2018 national champion, began its playoff trek with a 13-3 win over Trinity before gaining steam with victories of 42-7 over Birmingham-Southern and 49-24 over Linfield and picking up its first win in three tries at Wisconsin-Whitewater with a 24-7 win Saturday in the semifinals.

“In 2019, Whitewater beat us here (in the quarterfinals) and we went through some things that we really had to tweak,” Fredenburg said. “We did that, and our football team played outstanding last week against a really outstanding team from Whitewater.

“That was a great win for our team, just for the fact that we had never won there. The players played a tremendous game. The staff did an awesome job of putting together game plans, and our guys were able to execute those. It was well-played on offense and defense.”

North Central’s playoff journey started with a first-round game that didn’t get played and was ruled a no-contest when Carnegie Melon pulled out with COVID issues.

The Cardinals beat Wisconsin-La Crosse 34-20 in the second round and followed with wins of 55-6 against Rensselaer Polytechnic and 26-13 at Mount Union last week.

“(Not playing in the first round) gave us the ability to heal up,” Thorne said. “Evidently, it also cost us a home game in the semifinals. But it is what it is. We went on the road and circled the wagons.

“I was really pleased with how well we played on both sides of the ball last week. We played complementary football. To hold a team that averages 50 points a game to 13 points at their place, I’m really proud of the way our players and coaches approached that game.”

Comparisons

Thorne compared UMHB’s team to that of the Cardinals’ fellow College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin member Wheaton, which fell 20-7 to North Central in early September.

“(UMHB) reminds us a lot of Wheaton,” he said. “Defensively, they’re really, really good. They have an unbelievable front seven and the best secondary we’ve seen this year. They’re a very athletic, very talented team on both sides of the football.

“It’s a great opportunity for us. We played Mount Union and Whitewater in the 2019 playoff run, and now we’re playing the third purple power. It’s another opportunity to measure ourselves.”

Ironically, Fredenburg said North Central reminded him of Wheaton, which fell to UMHB in the 2016 quarterfinals in the programs’ only meeting.

“I think they’re a lot like Wheaton,” he said. “When we played them, we knew we would be in a dogfight. They ran the ball well, could pass and play defense. They’re very similar to Wheaton.”

Fredenburg also compared this year’s Crusaders to his team that won the 2018 national championship.

“This team has grown in stature and development in a way that is very similar to the ’18 team that had tremendous confidence in each other,” he said. “Our players are so eager and excited. They played such a great football team last week and played such a great game against them. Our guys are chomping at the bit.”

Watching the weather and the game

The forecast for Canton on Friday night calls for temperatures in the 40s with very little wind but a 90 percent chance of rain.

For fans who can’t make it to the Stagg Bowl, it will be televised live on ESPNU.