BELTON — With all things being equal, primarily both teams’ defenses, Mary Hardin-Baylor stayed on track to defend its national championship for one reason.

The Crusaders had more athletes capable of making big plays at more positions than their opponent.

Bryce Wilkerson produced a zig-zagging punt return for a touchdown that broke a fourth-quarter deadlock, Kris Brown took an interception to the house for some insurance, and Ajay Fanene spearheaded a relentless pass rush that carried No. 1 UMHB to a 24-10 victory over No. 4 St. Thomas on Saturday afternoon at Crusader Stadium.

In an NCAA Division III quarterfinal slugfest that showcased two of the country’s top defenses, it was the reigning national champion Crusaders (13-0) who delivered the knockout punches and earned the right to answer the bell next week in a semifinal matchup with No. 11 Brockport (13-0).

“What a great win for us,” said UMHB coach Pete Fredenburg, whose team stretched its winning streak to 28 games. “Obviously, we were struggling on offense with having any kind of consistency, so it was a great opportunity for Bryce and Ajay and some other guys on our defense to step up.”

Fanene was close to unstoppable all day long, and it was Wilkerson who rose to the occasion with the Crusaders’ first tide-turning play.

He fielded a punt on the left side of the field at his 33-yard line, found a crease and headed to his right. He turned the corner near the right sideline, sidestepped some defenders, reversed his field and raced toward the end zone, finally crossing the goal line near the left pylon for a 67-yard return that staked UMHB to a 17-10 lead with 11:22 left in the game.

“I’ve had a lot of big plays, but that one was special right there. Offensively we were struggling, so I knew I had to make a play,” said Wilkerson, a senior who has 11 returns for touchdowns in his career. “I was pressing my guys, telling them, ‘We need this one. We need this one.’ They gave me time to catch the ball and once I turned the corner, I made two guys miss. I reversed field on them and used my speed. When I got in the end zone, I hadn’t felt anything like that since the national championship game.”

It was Brown’s turn next, and the fifth-year senior cornerback sent the Tommies (11-2) to the mat only 80 seconds later when he stepped in front of Jacques Perra’s pass at the St. Thomas 33 and sprinted untouched down the sideline to pay dirt for a 24-10 Crusaders advantage with 10:02 remaining.

“Watching film, we knew they’d have a guy run a curl and then flare the back out behind him because most teams want to defend the curl,” Brown said. “I knew (Perra) would have to get rid of it fast because our D-line had been harassing him all day. I knew he was going to dish out to the back, so I sat on it and broke on the ball.”

It was the only turnover of the day for the Tommies, who outgained the Crusaders — 252 total yards to 143 — but were gouged for 234 return yards.

“Any time you kick to (Wilkerson), you know he’s explosive,” said St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso, whose squad gave up a punt return for a TD for the first time in four years. “We didn’t do a very good job today on him. He was able to get free and when he did, there’s very little opportunity to catch him.

“The way (UMHB) came out emotionally from halftime, you could tell that they’re not used to being in that position. I thought we were holding our own pretty well in the third quarter, but then the punt return and the pick six are tough to overcome.”

The Tommies’ last chance came to an end at the UMHB 12 with 1:49 left when Fanene delivered a bone-jarring hit on Perra. The senior end finished with 3½ of the Crusaders’ seven sacks.

“We knew what we had to do. We knew they had size, but we knew nobody had attacked them the way we were going to attack them,” Fanene said. “They had the size, but we wanted to be physical and that’s what happened.”

Perra threw for 190 yards — almost 50 more than UMHB’s total offensive output — but was under constant pressure.

“They’re big, fast, strong, and they got to me sometimes,” Perra said. “I had a clock ticking in my head and it definitely made things difficult.”

St. Thomas’ pass rush was equally impressive. The top-ranked defense in the country sacked Carl Robinson III six times, intercepted him twice and held UMHB to minus-16 yards rushing.

The first 45 minutes were a dogfight. After a scoreless first quarter, Robinson evaded the pressure long enough to find T.J. Josey for a 33-yard completion that set up Markeith Miller’s 1-yard TD plunge for a 7-0 UMHB lead at the 9:05 mark of the second.

One play after Robinson was intercepted for the second time, Perra hit tight end Jackson Hull with a 26-yard scoring strike to tie it before the teams matched field goals in the final 4½ minutes of the first half for a 10-all stalemate that stood through the third quarter.

“This says a lot about the leadership of this team and the character of this team,” Fredenburg said. “To make a run like this, you have to have guys with great confidence who will step up and make plays. We have some of those guys.”

UMHB will host Brockport at noon next Saturday with a chance to secure its second straight trip to the Stagg Bowl in Salem, Va.

“It definitely comes to mind that one more win and we get to go back and compete on the level that we want to compete at. It motivates us even more,” Brown said. “This was a great win against a great opponent, and it gave us more life. It showed us that we can go win it again.”

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