BELTON — A glance at the postseason bracket shows that Mary Hardin-Baylor is on the threshold of its second trip to the national championship game in program history.
One look at the opponent, though, proves that the final step to the Stagg Bowl is a doozy.
For a shot at the crown, No. 2 UMHB (13-0) will have to get past fifth-ranked and four-time national champion Wisconsin-Whitewater (13-0) when they collide at 2:30 p.m. today in an NCAA Division III national semifinal at Crusader Stadium.
The Crusaders are in the semifinals for the fifth time and came up empty in their last three tries to reach the Stagg Bowl. Today, they’ll be pulling out all the stops in hopes of earning their first trip to Salem, Va., since 2004.
“As you game plan, you try to do everything you can to put yourself in position to make big plays,” said UMHB coach Pete Fredenburg, who is in his 16th season as the only head coach in program history. “But you have to be careful that you don’t try to re-invent football. What we do is what we do.”
After missing the playoffs altogether last season, UW-Whitewater is in the semifinals for the eighth time in nine years. The Warhawks eliminated the Crusaders in semifinal battles in 2007 and ’08, and are 4-0 all-time against UMHB.
“It’s exciting to have a chance to be back in this situation, playing an excellent team,” seventh-year UW-W coach Lance Leipold said. “Mary Hardin-Baylor is very athletic and has a physical defensive front.”
The Crusaders’ defensive front could be less physical today without senior tackle and American Southwest Conference career sacks leader Silvio Diaz. The ASC and South Region defensive player of the year is suspended indefinitely for violating team rules, according to the school. Junior Michael Johnson will start in place of Diaz.
The absence of Diaz could cripple UMHB’s effort to pressure UW-Whitewater quarterback Matt Behrendt, who has thrown for 36 touchdowns and only one interception in 403 attempts this season.
“Whitewater does an excellent job of protecting (Behrendt). He throws the ball fast and they do a lot of things to protect him,” Fredenburg said. “It’s going to be our task to have something that will create problems.
“It’s tremendously important that our front four really play well. They have to do some things to get to the quarterback.”
Pressuring the quarterback will be critical in what could be a low-scoring affair. The Warhawks rank No. 1 in points allowed (8.2 per game) and the Crusaders are 11th (13.2).
“We don’t want to give up big plays,” Leipold said. “We believe that if a team has to drive 12 plays, there’s a good chance they’re going to self-destruct.”
UMHB was a few plays away from semifinal victories at Whitewater in ’07 and at Mount Union (Ohio) last year but was hampered by breakdowns by a handful of players who seemed overwhelmed by the semifinal stage.
“We have talked about that all year along,” Fredenburg said. “We feel like we took some guys to Whitewater that year and some guys to Mount Union last year that weren’t ready for that. They weren’t ready for the mental part of it.
“Some guys can get mentally fatigued this time of year. If you’re not a strong-willed person, there are a lot of things about playing in a semifinal that will pull you down. Hopefully, our guys understand that now.”
With seven trips to the Stagg Bowl on his program’s ledger, Leipold believes his players look at things differently.
“Those years when we won it all, our guys knew the semifinals weren’t the biggest game for them,” he said. “We just stay in that type of mode and try to keep doing the same things.”
NOTES: Today’s winner advances to face No. 1 Mount Union or No. 4 North Central (Ill.) in the national championship game at 6 p.m. next Friday at Salem Stadium. . . . Today’s forecast calls for game-time temperatures in the high 40s.