UMHB football

Mary Hardin-Baylor quarterback Kyle King (17) reacts after scoring a touchdown Saturday during the Crusaders’ win over Louisiana College

BELTON — Making his first start since high school in a contest to determine whether or not Mary Hardin-Baylor would advance to the American Southwest Conference championship game, quarterback Kyle King was a little shaky at the start.

But after missing on his only three pass attempts in the first quarter and completing just five of 10 throws in the second, the junior lit it up after halftime and the Crusaders started making plans for the trip to Abilene and a showdown with longtime rival Hardin-Simmons for the conference title.

King was 7-of-8 for 170 yards and three touchdowns over the final two quarters, and the UMHB defense pitched a second-half shutout as the Crusaders ran away from Louisiana College 65-20 on Saturday afternoon at Crusader Stadium.

“I missed a couple of pretty easy throws early that I’d like to have back, but you have to live and learn. My nerves calmed down a little bit and I think I executed better as the game went on, so I was happy about that,” said King, who finished 12-of-21 for 259 yards and four touchdowns without an interception and ran for 50 yards and two scores. “We missed a couple of opportunities in the first half. Everybody keeps a pretty level head around here, though, and we kept going and eventually hit some big plays.”

King had second-half TD throws of 84 yards to Kadarius Daniels and 50 yards to Romello Cook as the Crusaders (4-0) buried the Wildcats (2-2), setting up a date with the Cowboys (4-0) at 1 p.m. next Saturday on Hardin-Simmons’ home field.

“We love going deep in the playoffs, playing during Thanksgiving and playing when the weather gets cooler. That’s so much fun. We don’t have that this year but we have Hardin-Simmons, so we’re going to be excited to play,” UMHB head coach Pete Fredenburg said.

Louisiana College stayed within striking distance through the first half, thanks mostly to slippery running back Devin Briscoe. He had 131 of his 202 yards rushing and two TDs before halftime, and the Wildcats were down just two scores, 34-20, going into intermission.

The UMHB defense adjusted after the break, though, and King’s two long scoring passes and a 12-yard TD run by backup quarterback Tommy Bowden put the Crusaders up 58-20 heading into the fourth — a gap that would have been even larger had LC’s Tyren Young not intercepted Bowden in the end zone to stymie another scoring chance.

“(Briscoe’s) a good running back. I respect the way he plays,” said UMHB senior linebacker Jacob Mueller, who made a team-high 10 tackles, returned an interception for a touchdown and recovered a fumble. “When he would get hit, he would just roll off it. They ran to the weak side a lot, so I had to chase him a lot. Once you got him, you had to hold on to him.”

Briscoe opened the scoring with a 13-yard run, before King ran in from 15 yards out and K.J. Miller returned a punt 52 yards for a touchdown to give the Crusaders a 13-7 edge after one quarter.

After Briscoe’s 19-yard run tied it early in the second, Mueller’s 8-yard interception return gave UMHB the lead for good. King’s 2-yard keeper and his 33-yard pass to tight end Gary Ruckman widened the margin. LC answered with Sal Palermo’s 36-yard TD pass to Micah Dunn, before UMHB backup kicker Brandon Cunningham — playing after starter Anthony Avila pulled up gimpy on the opening kickoff — made a 33-yard field goal as the first-half horn sounded.

After the third-quarter fireworks, the fourth featured only King’s 16-yard TD throw to Melek Hamilton.

“I feel much more confident running the offense now,” King said. “There are a lot of things I can improve on, but I feel good about where I’m at right now and I’m looking forward to the future.”

The Crusaders totaled 539 yards — 241 on the ground and 298 through the air — and had just one turnover. It was quite a change from their previous game in which they mustered only 276 yards and turned it over three times while squeaking out a 30-28 win over East Texas Baptist two weeks ago.

“We weren’t happy with the way we performed in the ETBU game,” Mueller said. “This game was more for us to prove to ourselves that we can play better and not just about getting to the championship game.”