At 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, the 4,136 fans who had witnessed the thrilling, heart-pounding NCAA Final Four Division III contest between Wisconsin Whitewater and UMHB began leaving Crusader Stadium in Belton.
The scoreboard read: Whitewater 16, UMHB 15. Unfortunately for the Crusader faithful, that scoreboard wasn’t changing. The contest was over.
The 60 young men dressed in their home purple jerseys walked into their locker room without uttering a word. Naturally, of course, almost every one of those 60 Crusader players had moist eyes.
“We had a very tight group this year which makes this loss very tough to take,” said Crusaders 12-year defensive coordinator Larry Harmon. Harmon has been part of head coach Pete Fredenburg’s staff for 14 years.
“This program is very close to my heart,” said Harmon.
Heading into Saturday, Harmon’s defensive unit faced a very difficult challenge. Like UMHB, the Warhawks were 13-0. Also similar to the Cru, Whitewater has an outstanding offense.
The Warhawks were averaging 37 points and 401 yards per contest. Whitewater receiver Jake Kumerow had 69 receptions for 1,198 yards and 17 touchdowns. Their second biggest receiving threat, Tyler Huber, had hauled in six TD passes in 10 contests and was averaging 13 yards per reception.
On Saturday, Harmon’s defense yielded just 16 points and 294 total yards to Whitewater. Kumerow only had one reception. Huber caught five balls but none deep, averaging 9 yards per catch.
In the first quarter, the Cru defense outscored Whitewater’s offense 2-0. Whitewater wasn’t able to get on the scoreboard until 3:37 remained in the first half.
Whitewater’s gifted quarterback Matt Behrendt entered this contest with 36 TD passes and just one interception. Against the Cru, Behrendt and his offensive cohorts went punt, punt, fumble lost, punt on their first four possessions. Whitewater did score twice in the third quarter and made one critical third-down pickup in the fourth. But on its two other fourth-quarter possessions Whitewater was forced to punt.
“We were very worried about their two top receivers (Kumerow and Huber), so we had them doubled a bunch,” explained Harmon. “Those two receivers are both great players and we knew their quarterback was a great decision maker. They didn’t think we’d do that much doubling so that seemed to bother them early. But credit them: in the second quarter, they made some good adjustments to what we were doing and we had to then change things in the third quarter to combat the changes they were making.
“We didn’t allow them to get the big play. But I think we’ll look back and be disappointed at some of the run plays we did give up. They’re a very good team so it’s hard to take everything away. We thought that taking away those two outside guys gave us the best chance to win the game.”
Plenty of Harmon’s defensive players deserve praise for holding Whitewater 21 points below its scoring average.
Cru defensive backs Cody Jones had 12 tackles and Brodrick Crain seven. Outside linebacker Deshon Kinsey had 12 tackles and middle linebacker Andy McAteer had 10 including a sack. Defensive end Korey Steward had seven tackles and fellow lineman Lamar Seels had four including a sack.
Cru defensive end Teidrick Smith, who ended up with eight tackles, was flat-out barbaric.
With 7:56 to go, and UMHB trailing 16-12, Whitewater took possession at its own 12-yard line.
On first down, Whitewater halfback Jordan Ratliffe was handed the ball, and Smith smashed Ratliffe directly into the turf for a 4-yard loss. On the next play, Behrendt took the snap and before another two seconds elapsed, Smith dumped Behrendt smack into the ground for a sack.
On third-and-13, Behrendt, in the pocket, looked downfield and saw Smith coming at him. Behrendt didn’t want to get buried again and so he hurriedly fired the ball 10 yards downfield into the ground. Whitewater was forced to punt.
“What was so interesting about that series by Teidrick was the series before he gave up a big play and first down,” explained Harmon. “That had been a run of about 16 yards and so we actually had pulled him off the field and said, ‘Teidrick, don’t go under the guard.’ And then he got controlled on the sideline and then we said, ‘OK, Teidrick, now we need you to go out and make plays for this defense.’ And that’s exactly what he did. He made those plays for us — three plays in a row. He’s a fantastic player.”
Jones, McAteer, Crain and Steward are seniors and thus their UMHB careers are over.
“We had a very special group of seniors this year,” said Harmon. “Last December, after we got beat by Mount Union in the semifinals, they really took it upon themselves to lead us and said, ‘We won’t be feeling like this after next season — we’re getting it done.’ And right when we got back in January, this group of seniors got everybody in lockstep that we wanted to be the best team in Division III in 2013 — that was the only goal.
“I had never experienced anything like that before, not when I was coaching at Northwest or here. But this group made up their minds, set the goal and then they went to work. They were fun to coach. I never had to worry about whether or not they’d be ready for practice. I love these guys. It’s just a shame that we lost today. But that’s sports.”
Contact Allan Mandell at email@example.com or 254-501-7566 and read his blog on KDHPressbox.com