BELTON — All that stands between Mary Hardin-Baylor and the guarantee of an 18th consecutive postseason berth is a victory this week. And what stands between the third-ranked Crusaders and a win is a Howard Payne squad that averages more yards per game than any other team in the American Southwest Conference.
Simply put: UMHB (7-1, 6-0) has to find a way to shut down the Yellow Jackets (6-2, 5-1) on Saturday afternoon in Brownwood if the defending national champion Crusaders want to clinch the ASC’s automatic berth in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
“It will come down to whether or not we can eliminate their big plays and make them drive the ball. If we can’t do that, it’s going to be a long day for us,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said.
In its second full season under head coach Jason Bachtel, Howard Payne averages an ASC-best 533.4 yards — 3331.1 passing and 202.3 rushing — while scoring 44 points an outing.
Sophomore quarterback Landon McKinney has thrown for 2,435 yards and 23 touchdowns. Running backs Tauren Bradley (425 yards), Javion Myles (415) and Billy Reagins (415) are interchangeable, and the trio of Otis Lanier, Jordan Carroll and Hunter Cheek has a combined 1,846 yards receiving and 23 scores.
“They’re well-coached. Coach Bachtel does a great job,” Harmon said. “They improved their talent level with some transfer kids at receiver. They also had some guys transfer in on their offensive line that have helped them.
“They do a great job of spreading the field. You can tell Coach Bachtel is really fond of (Art Briles) because there’s a lot of similarity as far as making a defense defend the entire field — vertically and horizontally. They know exactly what they’re looking for and what to do to attack you.”
The Yellow Jackets won their first five ASC games before falling 28-19 at No. 10 Hardin-Simmons last week despite outgaining the Cowboys 389-368.
“They’re a lot better defensively than they were last year,” said Harmon, who was UMHB’s defensive coordinator for the Crusaders’ 59-14 win over the Jackets last season. “They run about every coverage package you can run out of that 3-3 stack Iowa State defense. They played really hard against Hardin-Simmons.”
Back in action
After a last-minute touchdown by Wisconsin-Whitewater was all that separated UMHB from a perfect record through its first eight games, the Crusaders’ open date last week gave them a chance to heal and learn.
“You don’t like open dates so late in the season, but this year it did help us get a few key guys some rest. Hopefully, they’re a little better now than they would be if we had played last week,” Harmon said. “We got a look at some young kids. We got some backup guys a lot of reps in practice that they usually don’t get, and we tried to get a bunch of teaching done.”
Defensively, Harmon said much of the teaching dealt with pass rush techniques up front and route coverage in the back, specifically in blitz packages.
As for how much his players progressed, he won’t know until kickoff at Gordon Wood Stadium.
“You’d think we’ll come out Saturday well-rested and with a lot of energy,” he said. “The scary thing is you’ve kind of had a distraction — a change in your daily routine for a week. Some teams don’t bounce back from that very well.
“As coaches, we have to make sure we have a great week of work, and the proof will be in the pudding on Saturday.”
Preparing for the long haul
UMHB played 15 games en route to winning the national title in 2018, had 13 games the following year and played 20 contests — including the pandemic-altered, five-game spring campaign — on the way to the 2021 DIII crown.
Only programs that know how to walk the fine line between being prepared and being overworked get to play that many games.
“We’re already talking about shortening some practice things, so you do a little more film work and a little less on-the-field stuff,” Harmon said. “You don’t back off very much, though. There’s a theory that the freshest team does the best in the playoffs. But there’s also a theory that the team that’s the mentally toughest succeeds. You get that mental toughness from the grind.
“There are certain competition drills that we’re going to do every single day that we’re out there. It doesn’t matter if it’s Week 15 or Week 7. That’s just a mindset of our program.”
The only changes in the top 10 of this week’s Division III coaches poll were in the second group of five after Johns Hopkins lost and slipped from sixth to No. 18.
North Central (8-0) remained No. 1, followed again by Mount Union (8-0), UMHB, Linfield (7-0) and Trinity (8-0).
The next five were St. John’s (7-1), Wisconsin-La Crosse (7-1), Delaware Valley (8-0), Cortland (8-0) and Hardin-Simmons (7-1), which moved back into the top 10 for the first time since its loss to UMHB on Sept. 24.