BELTON — Scoring a touchdown instead of settling for a field goal. Converting a crucial third down or preventing the opponent from doing so. Taking advantage of a rare defensive breakdown.
In a battle of unbeaten powers, all of those game-changing scenarios came into play in Mary Hardin-Baylor’s NCAA Division III national semifinal against Wisconsin-Whitewater on Saturday at chilly, windswept Crusader Stadium.
Second-ranked UMHB didn’t lose a 16-15 heartbreaker to its chief nemesis solely because its trip inside the Warhawks’ 5-yard line netted only a Chad Peevey field goal with 3:29 remaining.
Or because No. 5 UW-Whitewater, paced by Matt Behrendt’s nimble feet and precise passing, converted 10 of 18 third downs compared to UMHB’s 6-of-14 efficiency.
Or because a wide-open Kolby Kelley dropped a would-be go-ahead touchdown pass from Zach Anderson before the Crusaders opted for Peevey’s late field goal, which cut their deficit to 16-15 but wasn’t enough.
All those things contributed to deny UMHB (13-1) its first Stagg Bowl trip since 2004 and send UW-Whitewater (14-0) to Salem, Va., for its eighth title game in nine years.
“We knew that no matter how much you get up on those guys, they’re going to come back,” said UMHB senior Elijah Hudson, whose 106 rushing yards included the Crusaders’ lone touchdown for a 12-0 lead 5:47 before halftime. “We felt we needed to put more points on the board, but we were unable to.”
UMHB’s first key missed opportunity occurred after its defense produced a safety for a 5-0 lead late in the first quarter. After the free kick, the Crusaders reached the 20, but Warhawks ballhawk Brady Grayvold intercepted Anderson’s crossing pass at the 8.
Hudson’s second-quarter touchdown created a 12-0 lead, meaning UW-Whitewater already had exceeded its season average of 8.2 points allowed. The Crusaders didn’t know then that they wouldn’t reach the end zone again and would add only Peevey’s late field goal.
UMHB’s aggressive defense controlled 6-5 receiver Jake Kumerow, limiting the 17-touchdown scorer to one catch. However, that reception was Behrendt’s 30-yard strike on third-and-4 late in the first half and led to Jordan Ratliffe’s 3-yard TD run that gave UW-Whitewater momentum at 12-7.
The Warhawks’ third-down proficiency began to grind on UMHB on their first third-quarter drive. Behrendt, a 6-2, 200-pound junior, escaped pressure for 9 yards on third-and-5, hit tight end Logan Solano for 12 yards on third-and-4 and found Justin Howard for 7 yards on third-and-6 to reach the 5. Ratliffe scored on the next play and UW-Whitewater led for good at 13-12 midway through the third.
“We talked at halftime and knew we had to play a lot better,” Behrendt said. “On that drive we were just making our blocks, making our throws, ball security. We drove down and executed.”
Said Warhawks coach Lance Leipold: “This group has really matured. There’s not a lot of panic. There’s not a look in their eye like, ‘Boy, this is the first time our backs are against the wall.’”
UW-Whitewater was 5-for-9 on third down in each half, and its final conversion sealed the outcome. After UMHB pulled within 16-15, the Warhawks faced third-and-6 at their 28 with 3:12 remaining after UMHB’s final timeout. Behrendt rolled left and hit 285-pound tight end Derric Junakin for 18 yards and a vital 19th first down for the Warhawks, allowing them to drain the clock and move to 5-0 against UMHB.
“We had time, but they hit that bootleg to the big tight end,” UMHB coach Pete Fredenburg said. “(UW-Whitewater going) 10-of-18 on third down was huge.”
“He was a great player,” UMHB senior linebacker Andy McAteer (10 tackles) said of Behrendt, who was 21-of-29 for 197 yards and has one interception in 432 attempts this season. “He had confidence. You have to give him credit for not losing his cool.”
Said UMHB senior safety Cody Jones (12 tackles): “It was definitely frustrating not being able to get off the field. That’s one of our big things is getting off the field and getting our offense the ball. We just didn’t have a good enough game today to let that happen.”