BELTON — Much like the weather, things weren’t always pretty for Mary Hardin-Baylor.
But this is playoff football, which cares little for style points. It’s all about survive and advance, and the Crusaders did both on a cold, gray Saturday afternoon at Crusader Stadium.
Second-ranked UMHB was held to its second-lowest yardage total of the season and needed an offensive boost from — of all people — a defensive player as the Crusaders opened the NCAA Division III playoffs with a 35-7 victory over Redlands (Calif.).
UMHB (11-0) advanced to the second round for the 10th consecutive year and will host No. 24 Rowan (9-2) out of New Jersey next Saturday at Crusader Stadium for the first-ever meeting between the schools.
“I think it will be exciting to have a little showdown with someone we’ve never seen before,” Crusaders senior running back Elijah Hudson said. “It will be some
new blood out there.”
Saturday’s first-round battle was a rematch of the season opener, and Redlands (7-3) seemed bent on redemption. The Bulldogs frustrated the Crusaders for 2½ quarters but couldn’t get out of their own way, doomed by special teams mistakes and the dynamic performance of UMHB defensive back Eric Allen.
“That’s a really good football team,” Redlands coach Mike Maynard said. “They made a lot of big plays and capitalized on a lot of our mistakes. It was just a little too much for us.”
The Bulldogs outgained the Crusaders in the first half but had nothing to show for it. UMHB capitalized on a 10-yard Redlands punt with a 55-yard drive, capped by Hudson’s 2-yard touchdown plunge, and Allen thwarted a Bulldogs threat with a 68-yard interception return that set up another 2-yard TD run by Hudson.
The tide turned in the Crusaders’ favor for good midway through the third quarter when a Redlands drive stalled deep in UMHB territory, and the Bulldogs attempted a pooch punt. Allen fielded quarterback Kevin Russell’s kick at the Crusaders’ 10-yard line and weaved his way through would-be tacklers all the way to the end zone for a 21-0 cushion.
“(Free safety Cody Jones) was telling me, ‘Go! Go! Go!’” said Allen, who produced a game-high 158 all-purpose yards. “I knew I had to do something, so I just got it and took off.”
Added UMHB coach Pete Fredenburg: “Both of Eric’s returns were huge. They had the ball a long time in the third quarter. We finally got them to pooch punt and turned it into a touchdown. That was awesome.”
Crusaders quarterback Zach Anderson, who was only 7-of-12 passing for 69 yards and an interception, sandwiched touchdown runs of 3 and 68 yards around Russell’s 29-yard TD pass to Aaron Atkins to cap the scoring.
After totaling only 119 yards in the first half, UMHB churned out 254 in the final two quarters to build some momentum heading into next week.
“It was really frustrating in the first half, so I’m glad we came out in the second half and started putting things together,” said Hudson, whose 74 rushing yards were second only to Anderson’s 100. “We knew all along that we could play like that. We just had to go execute and do it.”
On the other side, Redlands rushed for 100 first-half yards against the defense ranked No. 1 in the nation against the run, but the Bulldogs picked up only 25 yards on the ground in the final two quarters.
“In the first half, we made a living running the ball,” said Russell, who threw for 179 yards and ran for 66. “In the second half, we couldn’t.”
UMHB blocked a pair of punts but also missed on two field goal attempts, epitomizing what was an up-and-down performance for a team with national championship aspirations.
“We have to get better every week,” Fredenburg said. “We will really address the things we did poorly.”