Playoff run

Markeith Miller (21) and top-ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor will try to keep their national title defense on track when they host No. 4 St. Thomas at noon today.

BELTON — Mary Hardin-Baylor and St. Thomas have coexisted in the top tier of NCAA Division III football teams for a decade but have never met on the field. That changes today when the Crusaders and Tommies clash to decide who has the more powerful purple-clad program — the Lone Star State or the North Star State.

Top-ranked UMHB (12-0) and No. 4 St. Thomas (11-1) square off at noon in a playoff quarterfinal at Crusader Stadium, where the host team will try to stay on track in defense of its national title and the visitor from St. Paul, Minn., aims to remain on path to a third Stagg Bowl appearance in six years.

It should be a dandy.

“They’re big and physical, but I think we match up well with them,” Crusaders coach Pete Fredenburg said. “I think it’s going to be a great football game to watch.”

Reigning national champion UMHB carries a 27-game winning streak into today’s contest against a St. Thomas squad that utilizes an offensive scheme unlike any the Crusaders have seen this season.

The Tommies are second in the country in scoring (50.2 points per game) and crested the 80-point mark in two outings.

“They are so well-schooled in what they do, and they’re so unique in that they’re in (a two-back set),” Fredenburg said. “The quarterback is under the center, and it’s the old I-formation.

“They’ve got great size, and they’re good athletes. They’re certainly very well-coached, and they’re just huge. They have a bootleg off every play. They run a lot of trick plays, and they have a lot of fakes on all of their special teams.”

St. Thomas will have to contend with a UMHB defense that gives up fewer points than anyone in the nation (7.3 per game).

With an all-senior front four of tackles Haston Adams and Brazos Fuller along with ends Ajay Fanene and Jordan Millar, the Crusaders are accustomed to controlling the trenches. Today, they’ll have to hold their own against a Tommies offensive line that averages 303 pounds per man.

“We’re facing the No. 1 team in the country, and they’re good at everything,” St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso said. “They stop the run and make you one-dimensional, and then they rush the heck out of the passer.”

On the other side of the ball, the UMHB offense has had an up-and-down season. The Crusaders rank 16th in the country in scoring (40.5 points per game) but only 88th in total offense after spending most the year searching for the right fit at quarterback.

Today, freshman Carl Robinson III will make his fifth straight start behind center for UMHB. He’ll direct an attack that has to find a way to be productive against a Tommies team that leads the country in total defense (158.8 yards per game) and yields only 10.1 points a contest.

Both squads know they’ll have their hands full.

“They are as lethal as can be in the run game. Then once you get on that, they’ll pull it down and throw the ball,” Caruso said. “And if you cover that, too, they have this new quarterback who will make his own stuff happen.

“It’s going to take a lot of things for us to play well and be successful. We’re working on putting together a complete game. We still haven’t hit our stride, and that’s exactly what it will take to play well on Saturday.”

NOTES: Today’s winner advances to face No. 5 Delaware Valley (12-0) or No. 11 Brockport (12-0) in next week’s semifinal round. . . . UMHB is 34-14 all-time in the playoffs, and St. Thomas has a 19-9 postseason record. . . . The only previous postseason meeting between the schools came during the 2013 men’s basketball national tournament in which the Crusaders upset the Tommies in a semifinal.

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