BELTON — Defending national champion Mary Hardin-Baylor needs two more victories to earn a spot in the NCAA Division III title game for the second straight year, and its desire to play in the Stagg Bowl grows stronger with each passing week of the playoffs.
“The sheer exhilaration of winning that 15th ballgame last year makes you hungry to do it again,” UMHB coach Pete Fredenburg said Monday. “I remember exactly how I felt that night. And man, I want to feel that again. I know our players do as well.”
Fredenburg expressed his feelings two days after his No. 1-ranked Crusaders (12-0) knocked out No. 8 Linfield with a 24-0 second-round victory Saturday, when UMHB blocked a punt, limited the Wildcats to 220 yards and held an opponent under seven points for the fifth time this season.
However, even that performance left room for improvement in the coach’s eyes.
“I think we all were a little flat to start the second half — players and coaches,” said Fredenburg, whose squad built a 17-0 second-quarter lead before Linfield even had a first down. “We got a little conservative offensively and defensively because we felt like we were going to win the ballgame. There was never a doubt in the third quarter that we were going to ultimately win the ballgame, but we didn’t put the hammer down like we should have.”
After getting picked off three times over the previous two games, UMHB freshman quarterback Carl Robinson III did not throw an interception against the Wildcats. He was 18-of-27 passing for 227 yards and a touchdown, and he added 46 yards rushing on several designed draw plays that included a 36-yard TD run.
According to Fredenburg, the next part of Robinson’s maturation process is learning when to stay in the pocket and deliver the ball.
“You want your quarterback to be your fiercest competitor of anybody on the field,” Fredenburg said. “He’s got to be the guy who will compete knowing full well that he is going to get hit. He has to stand in there and deliver the ball. With a freshman, that’s a work in progress. Guys have to learn to do that and not vacate the pocket too quickly.”
Next up for UMHB is a quarterfinal showdown at home Saturday against No. 4 St. Thomas (11-1) in what will be the first meeting between the Crusaders and Tommies.
St. Thomas — a private, Catholic university of 6,200 students in St. Paul, Minn., — has a rich athletic history. The Tommies fell to Mount Union in the Stagg Bowl in 2012 and ’15, won national basketball titles in 2011 and ’16, and were baseball champions in 2001 and ’09.
St. Thomas, this year’s Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champion, is in the quarterfinal round for the seventh time in the last nine years behind a mammoth offensive line and an offense that averages 484 yards and 50 points per game.
“I think we match up well with St. Thomas,” Fredenburg said. “They’re big and physical, but I think we match up well with them as far as how we’re going to line up defensively. I think it’s going to be a great football game to watch.”
UMHB senior defensive tackle Haston Adams — the American Southwest Conference defensive player of the year — limped off the field last Saturday with a right leg injury but is expected to play this week.
“Haston is good. He’s going to be fine,” Fredenburg said.
As for Raylon Hickey, a junior cornerback who did not suit up against Linfield, Fredenburg described him as “iffy” with a sore Achilles tendon.
Around the bracket
The eight quarterfinal slots in the 32-team playoff bracket are filled by the top five teams in the country along with three squads from outside the top 10.
The UMHB-St. Thomas winner will face No. 5 Delaware Valley (12-0) or No. 11 Brockport (12-0) in a semifinal. The quarterfinals on the other side of the bracket feature No. 3 Wisconsin-Oshkosh (11-0) against No. 15 Wartburg (12-0), and No. 2 Mount Union (12-0) against No. 17 Frostburg State (11-1).
The Stagg Bowl is Dec. 15 in Salem, Va.