BELTON — Mary Hardin-Baylor’s Pete Fredenburg and Wisconsin-Whitewater’s Kevin Bullis expressed equal amounts of concern about the challenge awaiting their teams today.
The coaches’ worries were not unfounded because a matchup of two squads with staunch defenses means third-down opportunities and turnovers will carry added weight for two offenses that struggled at times this season.
“What concerns me the most is methodically moving the ball,” Fredenburg said. “They have great defensive linemen and linebackers that present a challenge. They will wear you out with their size and physicality, so we have to match that.”
In what could turn into an old-fashioned grudge match, No. 1 UMHB (12-0) hosts No. 10 UW-Whitewater (11-1) at noon today in an NCAA Division III national quarterfinal game at Crusader Stadium.
It’s a rematch of last year’s semifinal round in which the Crusaders forced four turnovers in a 31-14 victory — their first against the Warhawks in six tries — on the way to their second national championship in three years.
“The lesson from that game was the turnover differential,” Bullis said. “It was minus-4 for the Warhawks. You can’t do that against anybody much less a team the caliber of Mary Hardin-Baylor and expect to win. We didn’t take it away, and they took it four times from us.”
UMHB finished last season with 46 takeaways leads the country this year with 38 through a dozen games, leaving the Warhawks with decisions to make about whether to take chances at making big plays or playing it close to the vest.
“You have to stick to your standards of how you play the game,” said Bullis, whose team averages 31.3 points and ranks 110th nationally in total offense at 375.5 yards per game. “It has to be calculated risks, not throwing a ball that shouldn’t be thrown.
“Follow your rules as a quarterback and a running back to take care of the ball, and as a defensive player to force a turnover. But don’t be foolish.”
UMHB averages 413.3 yards per game and ranks fourth in scoring at 50.5 points an outing with an offense led by senior quarterback Jase Hammack (98-of-165 passing for 1,543 yards, with 20 touchdowns and two interceptions) and senior receiver Jonel Reed (58 catches for 1,117 yards and 15 TDs).
Bullis’ biggest concern is the latter of those two players.
“You don’t nullify a player like that,” he said of Reed. “The biggest thing with him is we have to minimize the long touchdowns. He’s a threat in that area to say the least. You do that by being disciplined in coverage and with your pass rush. We can’t let the quarterback have time back there.”
UW-Whitewater will try to pressure Hammack with a defense that has registered 41 sacks, including 10 by freshman tackle Niko Lemke and 9½ by senior end Jordan Brand.
UMHB will try to treat Warhawks junior quarterback Max Meylor — making just his third start — in a similar fashion, using ends Khevon Shepard and E’Monte Smith (nine sacks each) to rattle Meylor into poor decisions on which a Crusaders secondary and linebackers corps with 24 interceptions can capitalize.
The biggest challenge for UMHB will be forcing UW-Whitewater into long passing situations and then getting to Meylor through a Warhawks offensive line that features four players of 290 pounds or more.
“They have huge offensive linemen, so they’ll run behind them,” Fredenburg said. “If they throw it, they also have good receivers.”
Today’s meeting is the programs’ first in the quarterfinal round. UW-Whitewater’s first two victories of the series were regular-season matchups and its next three were all semifinal wins before UMHB broke through last year in a game that’s still fresh on Bullis’ mind.
In the moments after his team’s second-round win last week, Bullis was quoted as saying, “We could not be happier to play (Mary Hardin-Baylor). The moment that game ended a year ago I just hoped and prayed to have the opportunity to face them in 2019.”
Earlier this week, the coach explained his comments.
“I was just being candid,” he said. “There is such a rich tradition between these programs going way back, so it’s exciting. Does that change our preparation? No.”
At stake today is a matchup with No. 3 Wheaton (12-0) or No. 8 St. John’s (11-1) in next week’s semifinal round, and Fredenburg believes it will take his team’s best effort to earn another game.
“We’ve always been excited to play Whitewater,” he said. “They’re big and physical, and you have to match their physicality. We’re blessed with some guys who can do that, so I think it’s going to be a whale of a ballgame.”