Ray Swindle/Special to the Telegram

Mary Hardin-Baylor’s KJ Miller makes a catch as Linfield's Evan Fisette defends last week. UMHB plays at Wisconsin-Whitewater today.

WHITEWATER, Wis. – One year after the 2020 NCAA Division III football season was completely canceled because of the pandemic, the chase for the 2021 championship trophy is down to four teams. And with little to no difference in the quality of the squads left in the playoff bracket, all involved understand that it could be just one big play or turnover that determines whether they store their gear for next year or prepare for one more game next week.

“We have to stay focused on what we’re here to do,” Mary Hardin-Baylor head coach Pete Fredenburg said. “Even though we’re in a different environment in Wisconsin, it’s important that our guys play with a great deal of mental focus and stay tuned into what we want to do and accomplish.”

The goal for No. 2 UMHB (13-0) is a trip to the Stagg Bowl. To reach it, the Crusaders have to get past No. 3 Wisconsin-Whitewater (13-0) in a semifinal at 2:30 p.m. today at Perkins Stadium.

“Whitewater is always a strong football team, and they are again,” Fredenburg said. “We look forward to the challenge.”

The Warhawks bounced the Crusaders from the playoffs in the quarterfinal round on the way to the 2019 championship game, one year after UMHB won the teams’ semifinal matchup on its way to claiming the 2018 national title.

UW-Whitewater – a six-time national champion – is eager to add a seventh piece of hardware to its trophy case two years after falling in the Stagg Bowl, and the Warhawks know that the slightest misstep could bring those hopes crashing down.

“When you have two great teams playing each other, ball security is vital. It’s about our ability offensively and on special teams to make sure we don’t the turn the ball over, and also our ability to take the ball away,” Warhawks head coach Kevin Bullis said. “One takeway, one fumble, one interception could be the thing that flips this game. In a game between two great teams, the threshold for error diminishes dramatically.

“The second piece of it is explosive plays. If somebody gets off a big 65-yard pass for a touchdown, that’s going to be huge. We have to minimize their explosiveness, which is tough because of the speed of their receivers and the strength of their quarterback’s arm. We have to minimize the long passes.”

The Crusaders scorched Linfield in a 49-24 quarterfinal victory last week, when senior quarterback Kyle King passed for 345 yards and six touchdowns as UMHB dialed up three TD throws of 40 yards or more.

Utilizing the athleticism of receivers Brandon Jordan, KJ Miller and Brenton Martin will be crucial today for the Crusaders, but first they’ll have to give King time to throw and keep the Warhawks defense honest with a productive rushing attack against a UW-Whitewater unit that is big and physical.

“Our offensive linemen have a big task ahead of them in blocking the team from Whitewater, which always has great size and athleticism,” Fredenburg said. “Our guys have been doing a great job, though, and they’re growing and developing into an outstanding unit.”

Bullis made no bones about it. Getting to King will be crucial for the Warhawks.

“We’d better not give him too much time,” he said. “The thing Kyle does really well is fit the ball into a small window. Whether it’s the strength of his arm or consistency with technique, it’s special. We cannot let him be comfortable.”

Defensively for UMHB, the first task will be containing UW-Whitewater senior running back Alex Peete (1,403 yards rushing, 25 TDs), and then defending the Warhawks passing game that’s triggered by senior quarterback Max Meylor and features three receivers with at least 35 catches.

It was the former that doomed the Crusaders in the 2019 meeting in which UW-Whitewater grinded out 239 yards rushing and averaged 4.2 yards per attempt in its 26-7 victory.

“It’s a huge matchup for our guys up front. The offensive line at Wisconsin-Whitewater is always big and physical and strong,” Fredenburg said. “Our defensive line has a big job ahead of it. We rely on our defensive line to do a lot, and we expect it to be a big part of our defense.”

Bullis struck a similar tone when talking about his offense, which needs to establish an effective running game to set up the pass and stay ahead of the chains.

“I’m an old defensive guy, so I look at offense from a defensive perspective,” he said. “It’s tough to defend a team when they can throw the ball and run the ball. If you can force a team to be one-dimensional, it’s much easier.”

With that 2019 loss still in the back of their minds, the Crusaders have waited two years for a chance at atonement. But even that isn’t their main aspiration today.

“Being in the semifinals of the national championship bracket, there’s no more motivation needed than that,” Fredenburg said.

NOTES: Today’s game will be broadcast online on ESPN+. …Today’s forecast is for snow showers in the morning and temperatures in the mid-30s by kickoff. …The winner will face either No. 1 North Central (12-0) or No. 4 Mount Union (13-0) in the Stagg Bowl next Friday night in Canton, Ohio.