Aphonso Thomas finds room to run last Saturday for No. 1 UMHB, which travels to Sherman this week to face Austin College.

BELTON — As for which is greater — the joy derived from beating a quality opponent with just one good half of football or the disappointment that comes with not rising to the occasion from the onset — it’s tough to gauge.

What Mary Hardin-Baylor head coach Pete Fredenburg does know, though, is that the top-ranked Crusaders’ rally from a 28-7 halftime deficit to a 34-28 victory over No. 6 Hardin-Simmons on Saturday night should be a boost for UMHB.

“The amount of things we adjusted at halftime was minimal except one big ingredient was effort, focus — doing the things we normally do very well,” Fredenburg said Monday. “For whatever reason, we didn’t have the guys ready to go in the first half. That’s my fault. Obviously in the second half, they came out with a different mindset.

“It was an amazing turnaround. The guys didn’t really like the feeling of what was going on and decided to make a difference and they did. There was a level of play that was incredible. They increased their effort and energy, and I think it will be a giant push for us as we move forward in our season.”

In the first half, UMHB’s offense sputtered with just 135 yards and two fumbles, and its defense was gashed for 183 yards rushing and 99 passing.

It was a different story during a second half in which Crusaders quarterback Kyle King threw for 154 yards and four touchdowns — including four connections with Brandon Jordan for 93 yards and two scores — and running backs Aphonso Thomas and Kenneth Cormier combined for 107 yards rushing while a defense led by linebacker Jacob Mueller (10 tackles) limited the Cowboys to only 90 yards.

“Our guys didn’t have a particularly good week of practice, which is unusual for Hardin-Simmons week,” Fredenburg said. “That first half was a huge wake-up call. It means a lot that they reached inside themselves.

“The leadership really emerged. Guys stepped up, and I think they’re going to come out of that with a tremendous amount of confidence. Our offense will feel good about being able to move the ball like they did in the second half, and our defense will get better and better every week.”

Also key to the comeback were the Crusaders’ ability to keep their cool and feed off the large, energetic home crowd at Crusader Stadium.

Hardin-Simmons committed multiple unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and personal fouls — including three straight on UMHB’s first snaps from scrimmage — but the Crusaders didn’t retaliate. The end result was 11 penalties for 125 yards for the Cowboys, compared to seven for 58 for UMHB.

“Guys get emotional. The thing we try to instill in our players is that what’s important is that they don’t do anything to hurt their teammates, hurt their team,” Fredenburg said. “Retaliating and getting ejected or called for a penalty doesn’t do anything but hurt our football team. We work really hard to make sure guys don’t do stupid things that will hurt the team.”

And as for those boisterous fans, Fredenburg couldn’t say enough.

“The atmosphere was electric. It was incredible. It was awesome to have that kind of crowd,” he said. “We had more than 200 ex-players here. It was a tremendous outpouring of support from guys who love this program. It meant the world to our players, and that energy level was huge for us in the second half.”

Up next

UMHB (4-0, 3-0 American Southwest Conference) turns its focus this week to Austin College (1-2, 1-2), which is back in the ASC following a 15-year hiatus.

When the Kangaroos host the Crusaders on Saturday afternoon in Sherman, it will be the teams’ ninth meeting but first since UMHB’s 58-0 victory Nov. 12, 2005.

“This week’s game is totally new. Breaking down film and watching what they do offensively and defensively, it’s different,” Fredenburg said. “The nuances of a new team are something we have to study and understand so we can teach our players to be in the right spot at the right time.”

After Austin College won its first two matchups with UMHB, the Crusaders won the next six by a combined score of 260-26. Facing a program it has historically dominated on the heels of an emotional victory over a rival could cause UMHB to worry about a letdown.

Fredenburg said that won’t be the case.

“We’ve had our letdown. It was in the first two quarters the other night,” he said. “So our guys have had their letdown and they need to grow up and realize that every time we play — regardless of who our opponent is — we’re going to get their absolute best shot and that we need to maintain our level of energy and execution.

“It’s something our program has to deal with. Our guys will always be circled on everybody’s calendar.”

In the poll

The top five teams in the coaches’ NCAA Division III top 25 remain the same this week but with some shuffling.

UMHB is still No. 1, but North Central jumped two spots to No. 2, and Wisconsin-Whitewater and Mount Union dropped one slot each to third and fourth, respectively. St. John’s stayed put at No. 5.

The next five, in order, are Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Delaware Valley, Linfield, Hardin-Simmons and Wheaton.