SALEM, Va. – They are the closest things to rock stars in NCAA Division III football. The baddest of the bad dudes. They would be the cool kids in the back of the bus except they’ve been busy driving it, carrying Mary Hardin-Baylor to the national championship game for the second straight year.
Make no mistake about it, it’s the defense that fuels the Crusaders. And they know it.
“We know that defense wins championships,” Crusaders senior cornerback Kris Brown said Wednesday during a session with the media at Salem Civic Center, just a few hundred feet from the stadium where No. 1 UMHB (14-0) faces No. 2 Mount Union (14-0) on Friday night in Stagg Bowl XLV. “We have faith in the offense and we want those guys to know that we have their backs no matter what. In our minds, we know defense wins championships.”
It’s tough to argue with that line of thinking when considering the results. Last year, the Crusaders shut down Wisconsin-Oshkosh in a 10-7 Stagg Bowl victory to claim their first title, and that performance fanned the defense’s fire. This season, UMHB ranks third in the country in total defense by allowing only 223 yards per game and is the stingiest in the land when it comes to points, yielding an average of only seven an outing.
“We have a lot more swagger and confidence this year. Winning the championship last year gave us something to really be proud of, and it just took off from there,” senior defensive tackle Haston Adams said.
It starts up front with the all-senior line of Adams and Brazos Fuller in the middle and Ajay Fanene and Jordan Millar on the ends. That group has posted 70½ tackles for losses — including 33 sacks — and has routinely flustered opposing offenses no matter what they’ve tried to do.
“Teams will change their plan during the game to try to find ways to keep us off their quarterback, and it makes you feel good when you know they’re having to do things they don’t want to do to try to beat you,” Adams said. “All of us trust each other. No matter who’s going on the field, from seniors all the way down to freshmen, we trust them that they’re going to work just as hard as anybody else. We know the job we do up front will help Kris Brown — the touchdown king — score his pick sixes.”
Brown is the senior leader in the secondary with a team-high 14 career interceptions – four of which he’s returned for touchdowns to go with two fumble returns for scores – and is a force against the run with 66 tackles this season. Now in his fifth season after missing a year with a knee injury, he fully understands what it means to be part of a special defense.
“We know there’s a standard at UMHB, and we just try to hold each other accountable to that standard,” he said. “Of course, you can’t help but hear people saying how good you are. But (defensive coordinator Larry Harmon) always says to do your best to ignore the outside stuff so that your head doesn’t get big, because then you won’t push yourself as hard at practice to try to get better. We take pride in how we play. It is amazing to hear people talk about us.
“I think we play with a little more swagger. It’s walking a thin line, though, because (head coach Pete Fredenburg) and Coach Harmon are the traditional, classic coaches who want you to act like you’ve been there before. We’ve walked that fine line and had fun with it. We have some handshakes and dances that we do, and it helped instill that swagger in our team. And that swagger helps instill confidence.”
It’s a defense that certainly has its share of differing personalities. Fanene has a hard edge to him when he steps on the field. Millar quietly goes about his business, and then there’s junior cornerback Reginald Cole.
“The goofy guy on the defense is Reggie Cole, and he might be the goofiest on the team,” Brown said. “He does weird things like wearing his shorts way up high at practice and just stuff to be goofy and different. Of course we have to give him a hard time about it.”
As for who does the most talking in the trenches, it’s no contest.
“It’s between me and Ajay. It’s usually Ajay. Really, it’s always Ajay,” Adams said.
Friday will mark the final college game for the starting front four and Brown, who are enjoying the moment while trying not to get caught up in what comes afterward.
“We’re a lot more comfortable here this year, and we’re trying to take it all in,” Adams said. “I really don’t want to think about the end until after the game. I’m trying to focus on playing the game.”
That’s straight from the mouth of one bad dude, and that could be bad news for Mount Union.