UMHB-Linfield

Wide receiver Brandon Jordan (21) and No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor host No. 6 Linfield in an NCAA Division III quarterfinal today at Crusader Stadium.

BELTON — This won’t be a game for the faint of heart. It will be big-boy football dictated in the trenches by the largest guys on the field.

Can Mary Hardin-Baylor get consistent pressure on prolific Linfield passer Wyatt Smith? Can the Wildcats hold up for all four quarters against the Crusaders’ relentless rushing attack?

Those questions will be answered today when No. 2 UMHB (12-0) and No. 6 Linfield (11-0) clash in an NCAA Division III quarterfinal at Crusader Stadium.

“I believe line play will be paramount. From having played them in the past, we know they’ll be very physical and explosive up front on defense and their offensive line will move you,” said Linfield coach Joseph Smith, whose Wildcats went on the road last week and knocked off No. 5 St. John’s in the second round. “I believe in our guys, though. We’ll compete with anybody. Our guys have a lot of bite in them and will play with everything they have. Our guys will rise to the challenge.

“How we measure up will ultimately be decided Saturday, but I look for it to be a very competitive battle.”

As Wyatt Smith — the senior son of the head coach — goes, so go the Wildcats. He has thrown for 3,275 yards and 40 touchdowns with only four interceptions this season while guiding a Linfield offense that averages 487 yards and 50 points per game.

“We played against him when he was a freshman. He’s a lot better now than he was then, and it will be a big challenge for our defense,” Crusaders coach Pete Fredenburg said. “We just have to put together a good game plan. Linfield is better than the other two teams we played (in the first two rounds).”

UMHB, which defeated No. 14 Trinity and No. 19 Birmingham-Southern to reach the quarterfinals, features a defense with pass rushers E’Monte Smith and Pete Smith up front, All-American free safety Jefferson Fritz in the back and a trio of play-making linebackers in between.

The Crusaders limit opponents to an average of 211 yards and 7.9 points per game, and today they’ll have to contain Wyatt Smith and receivers Joel Valadez (716 yards, 11 TDs), Devon Murray (656 yards, 11 TDs) and Colton Smith (601 yards, 10 TDs) — the sophomore son of the Wildcats coach.

“The No. 1 matchup that concerns us is the tremendous defensive front and linebackers and secondary that Mary Hardin-Baylor has,” Joseph Smith said. “They’re exceptional on defense. That’s a matchup that has our full attention as well as their great special teams play.

“We’re going to have our hands full. Every facet of our team will be challenged greatly, and our goal is to make it the same for them.”

When UMHB has the ball, it will be either Kyle King or fellow senior Ryan Redding at quarterback. It was Redding in the 42-7 second-round win last week, when King dealt with an illness. King has since been cleared to play.

Regardless of who is behind center, the Crusaders typically want to establish the run first with junior Aphonso Thomas (924 yards rushing, 12 TDs) and sophomore Kenneth Cormier (758 yards, seven TDs) as the foundation of an offense that averages 473 yards and 50.3 points.

“Our offense needs to continue to grow, and I think they’re coming along at the right time right now,” Fredenburg said. “You just can’t make mistakes in a game like this. Both teams are so good that if you make a mistake, it’s going to be hard to overcome.”

Linfield, whose trip to the 2019 postseason ended in the first round with a 68-65 loss to Chapman, has rectified the defensive problems that plagued it the last time the playoffs were held. The Wildcats give up only 217 yards and 13 points a game.

“In 2019, we played a very poor game on defense that day,” Joseph Smith said. “We had some issues that I hope we’ve addressed. Statistically, it looks like we have. Our defense has been incredible for us this year, and we need them to be again.”

Today’s winner advances to next week’s semifinal round to face No. 10 Central or No. 3 Wisconsin-Whitewater — the program that ended UMHB’s quest for back-to-back national titles with a quarterfinal win in 2019.

The Crusaders won’t get a shot at redemption, though, if they don’t first defeat what might be Linfield’s best team since the Wildcats beat UMHB in the 2004 Stagg Bowl.

“It says a lot about Linfield that they went to Minnesota and beat St. John’s last week. They will be a huge challenge, and we’re glad that we’ll have them in front of our home fans,” Fredenburg said. “I think our team has progressed to a point that we’re ready for a game against Linfield. We realize how detail-oriented we have to be, and our players are excited about playing a team as good as Linfield.”