ABILENE — The first American Southwest Conference championship football game lived up to its billing, complete with big plays, big hits and a big celebration. And when the final buzzer had sounded and the prize had been awarded, it was once again Mary Hardin-Baylor with its hands on the trophy.
UMHB’s Kenneth Cormier Jr. ran for 144 bruising yards, and the Crusaders got enough big plays from their defense to thwart Hardin-Simmons’ second-half push and win the conference title with a 23-15 victory Saturday afternoon at Shelton Stadium.
It certainly wasn’t the first league crown for UMHB (5-0), which has dominated the ASC for almost 20 years. But it was the Crusaders’ first title by way of a true conference championship game — instituted for the abbreviated spring season — and they celebrated whole-heartedly while hoisting the hardware on their longtime rival’s home field.
“What really is cool is lifting up the championship trophy at Hardin-Simmons,” UMHB coach Pete Fredenburg said. “That sounds bad, but we’re such big rivals in recruiting and everything else. This was pretty special.”
The Crusaders were up 13-0 after limiting the Cowboys (4-1) to only 96 yards in the first half, before HSU started gaining traction after halftime.
After UMHB was forced to punt for the first time on its opening possession of the second half, HSU needed only five plays to move 57 yards — the last being Marc Reed’s 3-yard shovel pass to Gatlin Martin that made it 13-7.
The Crusaders regained control with Brandon Cunningham’s 37-yard field goal with 7:18 left in the third quarter and a bit of trickery in which wide receiver Brenton Martin took a pitch, pulled up and threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Gary Ruckman for a 23-7 lead just a minute into the fourth.
The Cowboys were within steps of an immediate answer on their next possession when Rae Millsap hauled in a Kyle Jones pass and raced 61 yards to the UMHB 2-yard line before Crusaders junior safety Jayden Smith made the biggest defensive play of the day by punching out the ball, which bounded through the end zone for a touchback.
“I had pushed over too far to the left, and he threw it to a guy on my right. I took off after him as fast as I could,” Smith said. “As soon as I got close enough to him, I punched it out with my left arm. I had no other chance to do anything else. I knew I had to do something to save us.”
Smith’s play grew larger and larger as the fourth quarter unfolded.
“That was a huge play. We go through that drill just enough, I guess,” Fredenburg said.
HSU went to work again after another UMHB punt, and — three plays after Crusaders senior safety and captain Jefferson Fritz was ejected for targeting — Myles Featherston scored from 5 yards out and Jones’ 2-point pass to Reed brought the Cowboys within 23-15 with 7:52 to go.
After the teams traded interceptions — HSU’s Jeffrey McCutcheon picked off Kyle King, and Drake Johnson intercepted Jones — it was the Cowboys’ turn to dodge a bullet when McCutcheon blocked Cunningham’s 21-yard field goal attempt that would have sealed it with 2:15 left, but HSU’s last gasp fizzled when Jones threw four straight incompletions.
The Crusaders ran off the final 53 seconds, and the celebration was on.
“That was closer than it should have been, but I’m glad we pulled it out,” said King, who finished 8-of-15 for 150 yards and a touchdown to go with 56 yards rushing and a TD run. “Hardin-Simmons played a good second half.”
After Johnson blocked an HSU punt on the game’s first possession, UMHB cashed in for the early lead. King’s 43-yard pass to Kadrius Daniels set up the Crusaders at the Cowboys 3-yard line, and King carried it from there for UMHB’s 7-0 lead less than 5 minutes in.
The Crusaders had a chance to double their advantage in the opening minute of the second quarter but bogged down inside the Cowboys 5 and settled for Cunningham’s 22-yard field goal and a 10-0 edge.
Cunningham missed from 43 yards about 5 minutes later but was good from 25 yards with 1:25 left to cap the first-half scoring and send UMHB into the break with a 13-0 lead following an initial 30 minutes in which the Crusaders racked up 220 yards.
The Cowboys totaled 240 of their 336 yards after halftime but posted their lowest point total of the short season against a UMHB defense that got a team-high 11 tackles — four for losses — from senior linebacker Jacob Mueller.
UMHB finished with 389 yards by riding the hard-churning legs of Cormier, a freshman who practiced some last fall as a running back but was moved to linebacker in the spring before rejoining the offense just three weeks ago. He carried the ball 26 times Saturday, averaging 5.5 yards per attempt.
“I remembered all the plays from before, so I went hard in practice and made the most of it,” he said. “I feel more comfortable at running back. To be honest when they moved me back to offense, I didn’t think I’d play this much. But at the same time, I knew I was going to work hard.”
Cormier certainly made life easier for King.
“That dude’s a stud,” the quarterback said of his backfield mate. “I wasn’t happy when he got moved to the defense in the first place, because he’s one of my guys.”
King and the Crusaders were all smiles Saturday afternoon, partying on their rival’s field after winning a title that will keep morale high through the summer and into fall camp come August.
“This was a great atmosphere,” King said. “The most fulfilling part is winning it in an actual championship game.”
Mary Hardin-Baylor 23,
UMHB 7 6 3 7 — 23
Hardin-Simmons 0 0 7 8 — 15
UMHB—King 3 run (Cunningham kick), 8:21.
UMHB—FG Cunningham 22, 14:18.
UMHB—FG Cunningham 25, 5:21.
HSU—Martin 3 pass from Reed (Pogue kick), 10:44.
UMHB—FG Cunningham 37, 7:18.
UMHB—Ruckman 7 pass from Martin (Cunningham kick), 14:00.
HSU—Featherston 4 run (Reed pass from Jones), 7:52.
First downs 16 16
Rushes-yards 49-232 34-94
Passing 157 242
Comp-Att-Int 9-16-1 16-28-1
Return Yards 64 61
Punts-Avg. 2-47.5 5-17.6
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 1-0
Penalties-Yards 8-59 4-47
Time of Possession 33:26 26:34
RUSHING—UMHB, Cormier 26-144, King 17-60, M.Miller 3-33, team 3-(minus 1). Hardin-Simmons, Youngblood 14-74, Featherston 8-24, Reed 9-6, Jones 3-(minus 10).
PASSING—UMHB, King 8-15-1-150, Martin 1-1-0-7. Hardin-Simmons, Jones 15-27-1-239, Reed 1-1-0-3.
RECEIVING—UMHB, Daniels 3-70, Martin 6-35, K.Miller 2-30, Ruckman 3-22, Jordan 1-0, Cook 1-0. Hardin-Simmons, Reed 4-24, Millsap 7-24, Martin 5-22, Featherston 2-25, Nanny 2-25, Carter 1-22, Crawford 4-0, Brinkerhoff 1-0, Coleman 1-0.