BELTON — Far from dominant and even farther from perfect, Mary Hardin-Baylor got gritty Saturday afternoon at bone-chilling Crusader Stadium.
And because of their performance that was one part dynamic and one part stubbornness, the Crusaders aren’t far from their final goal.
Second-ranked UMHB overcame a very ordinary offensive showing with extraordinary plays from its defense and special teams to put away St. John Fisher (N.Y.) 45-23 in an NCAA Division III quarterfinal and move to the cusp of the national championship game.
Now the Crusaders (13-0) are onto the national semifinals for the second straight year and a battle with No. 5 Wisconsin-Whitewater (13-0) next week, with the winner earning a berth in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl and a shot at the title.
“With this group, I think playing Whitewater is exactly what we would want to do,” said UMHB coach Pete Fredenburg, whose program is 0-4 all-time against the Warhawks. “There are no easy teams left. We’re facing a team that we’ve never beaten before, and it’s time for us to go win one.”
To get its first shot at UW-Whitewater since back-to-back semifinal losses in 2007 and ’08, UMHB had to survive a St. John Fisher second-half surge on a day when the Crusaders’ offense was a shell of itself most of the afternoon.
UMHB rushed for only 4 yards in the first half, and sophomore quarterback Zach Anderson never found his groove. He completed only nine of 20 pass attempts, threw a fourth-quarter interception that helped the Cardinals (10-3) cut the gap to 31-23 and was eventually benched in favor of senior Brian Gallagher.
“I was a little bit off, and I missed a couple of reads,” Anderson said.“It just wasn’t my day, honestly.”
It was Gallagher who engineered scoring drives of 96 and 49 yards – both capped by touchdown runs from the backup — to seal it, but Fredenburg quickly put the kibosh on any talk of a quarterback controversy.
“We felt like for whatever reason, Zach was not playing as well as he needed to. We have great confidence in all of our quarterbacks, and obviously Brian came in and did a nice job,” Fredenburg said. “And we know Zach will do a good job next week. Today, he just didn’t perform as well as he would’ve like to. It will still be Zach next week.”
In a continuing trend for the Crusaders, they scored in all sorts of ways to bail out their struggling offense. There was a safety, Brodrick Crain’s 35-yard interception return for a touchdown and Cody Jones’ interception and two-point return of a Cardinals conversion pass.
“We have high expectations as it is. We saw that (the offense) was struggling,” Crain said.“Nobody really said it, but we understood that they were struggling and that we needed to raise our level of play in order to win that ballgame. If we’re having a bad day, we expect the offense to have our back, too.”
St. John Fisher dominated with its defense in the first half — and much of the second — but never led, falling behind 12-0 before UMHB’s offense ever recorded a first down, much less any points.
“We played a tremendous football team today. You can’t make any mistakes against them, or else you’re going to be in trouble and in for a long afternoon,” Cardinals coach Paul Vosburgh said. We had talked about it during the week how they not only score on offense but also on defense and special teams. We knew they weren’t just a good offensive or defensive team. They’re just a good football team.”
St. John Fisher limited UMHB to only 120 yards rushing and 371 total but was foiled by the Crusaders’ ability to make big plays at crucial moments.
“You win as a team and lose as a team,” Cardinals linebacker Sean Preish said.“If you have less points on the scoreboard, then there’s nothing else to say.”
UMHB also got two field goals from Chad Peevey, a 1-yard scoring plunge from Elijah Hudson and a 15-yard TD pass from Marcus Wimby to Michael Carpenter out of the Wildcat formation. Able to muster only 41 rushing yards, St. John Fisher relied on senior quarterback Tyler Fenti, who passed for 411 yards and a score.
“It definitely hurt our offense a little bit to not be able to run the ball as well as usual,” said Fenti, who was picked off twice.“We tried to make up for it with the pass, but didn’t do a good enough job of it.”
The site of next week’s semifinal won’t be announced by the NCAA until today, although the prevailing feeling is that UMHB will host. Wherever the game is, the Crusaders know they have some kinks to iron out with their offense.
“Anytime you play as bad as we did on offense, it leaves an uneasy feeling — especially when you’re about to play a defense as good as Whitewater’s,” Fredenburg said.“So maybe this might be the best thing we could have done, so now we have to address those issues and see where we’re at.”
NOTES: UMHB’s Baylor Mullins had a game-high 14 tackles and fellow linebacker Deshon Kinsey had 13 . . . . UW-Whitewater was a 28-17 home winner over No. 3 Linfield (Ore.) on Saturday. . . . North Central (Ill.) and defending national champion Mount Union (Ohio) will meet in the other semifinal.