BELTON — Mary Hardin-Baylor’s reputation as a team that plays it close to the vest in the playoffs was put to rest Saturday afternoon, when the Crusaders bet big on their playmakers and hit the jackpot.
Senior quarterback Kyle King threw for 345 yards and a program single-game record six touchdowns as No. 2 UMHB loosened the reins on its offense and ran smooth over No. 6 Linfield 49-24 in an NCAA Division III quarterfinal at Crusader Stadium.
“I want our offense to can that up and keep doing it,” Crusaders head coach Pete Fredenburg said.
The next opportunity to open the aforementioned can will come next Saturday when UMHB (13-0) collides with No. 3 Wisconsin-Whitewater (13-0) in a semifinal at Perkins Stadium in Whitewater.
To reach the doorstep of the national championship game, the Crusaders lit up a Linfield defense that came in allowing just 217 yards and 13 points a game, utilizing the pinpoint passing of King and athleticism of receivers Brandon Jordan, Brenton Martin and KJ Miller in one-on-one matchups that paid dividends all afternoon.
“Their receivers are hard to match up with,” Wildcats coach Joseph Smith said. “We couldn’t make plays on the ball.”
For as good as King was, it was Miller’s 58-yard TD throw to Martin on a trick play late in the first quarter that opened the scoring for UMHB and got the Crusaders off and running.
Jordan capped a 13-play, 80-yard drive by outjumping cornerback Evan Fisette in the end zone to catch an 11-yard King pass midway through the second, and Martin outran his defender to haul in King’s 57-yard scoring throw 5½ minutes later for UMHB’s 21-3 lead.
Even after Linfield (11-1) responded quickly with Wyatt Smith’s 70-yard TD throw to Connor McNabb, the Crusaders used tight end Gary Ruckman’s 29-yard catch down the middle to jumpstart its ensuing possession that culminated when Jordan fought through Fisette in the end zone to grab King’s 26-yard pass that made it 28-10 going into halftime.
“We knew we were going to get some one-on-one opportunities,” said King, who finished 24-of-32 without an interception. “But after there were two drives in a row where we hit three or four big passes, I figured they were going to change. I guess they trusted their guys. That’s what got them here, and they didn’t want to change that. I can understand that.
“I thought our guys stepped up and made tons of plays. They were in decent coverage sometimes. It wasn’t like they were terrible. We just made good plays, and that’s what it boils down to.”
The Wildcats got within 28-17 on Wyatt Smith’s 30-yard pass to Joel Valadez midway through the third, but the Crusaders padded their advantage with King scoring throws of 15 yards to Miller and 41 yards to Jordan for their 42-17 lead heading into the fourth.
Wyatt Smith’s 10-yarder to Valadez, and King’s 4-yarder to Ruckman were the only tallies in the final frame, and UMHB could begin making plans for its trip to Wisconsin.
“This is a great win for our program,” Fredenburg said. “We were concerned going in because they play great defense. We felt like 24 points might be enough for victory, but what an incredible performance by our offense.”
Jordan finished with seven catches for 136 yards and the three TDs. Martin totaled 130 yards and two scores on just three receptions, and Miller made 12 grabs for 97 yards and a TD.
On the other side of the ball, Wyatt Smith closed out his career by going 42-of-51 for 442 yards, but the Wildcats’ big plays were few and far between against a UMHB defense that sacked him five times — twice each by Khevon Shepard and Sante Parker — and limited Linfield to only 30 yards rushing.
“They have the best defense we’ve played against,” Wyatt Smith said. “I’m proud of the way we attacked them, but they made it tough.”
Still, though, the Crusaders weren’t pleased with their final defensive numbers, with Fredenburg joking that he was “going to have to talk (defensive coordinator) Larry Harmon off the ledge.”
“We never like giving up any yards or any points,” said senior linebacker Jacob Mueller, who made a game-high 10 tackles. “Giving up 24 points will be something we learn from. We’re going to get better from this.”
The last time UMHB visited UW-Whitewater it was 6 degrees at kickoff for a 2007 semifinal that the Warhawks won 16-7.
What this group of Crusaders remembers more vividly, though, is the 26-7 quarterfinal loss to UW-Whitewater in Belton two years ago that ended UMHB’s bid for back-to-back national titles.
Now the Crusaders finally get a chance at redemption against the Warhawks and an opportunity to earn a trip to Canton, Ohio, for the Stagg Bowl.
“We’ve waited a long time for this,” Fredenburg said. “We will match up with Wisconsin-Whitewater. We’re looking forward to the opportunity. We wish it was here but it’s not, so we’ll go to Wisconsin. We’ll be ready to go.”