BELTON — The transition from perennial title contender to reigning national champion brings with it added pressure. For 11½ months, Mary Hardin-Baylor had marched under the weight of lofty expectations without a misstep.
So as daylight gave way to darkness Saturday, the Crusaders finally exhaled in the crisp December air. They are going back to the Stagg Bowl for a second straight year, and their goal of back-to-back championships lives on.
“It’s a huge relief. From the start of the season, we put in a lot of work — the early mornings, the long practices — and everything has come together,” Crusaders junior linebacker Tevin Jones said. “We’re on our way back and it feels amazing.”
Jones and the defense put the clamps on No. 11 Brockport, and the Crusaders offense capitalized on the Golden Eagles’ early shakiness as No. 1 UMHB charged to a 24-0 victory in an NCAA Division III semifinal at Crusader Stadium.
Now only one step remains in UMHB’s bid for consecutive titles: a date with 12-time national champion and No. 2-ranked Mount Union in Stagg Bowl XLV on Friday night in Salem, Va.
“It’s going to be a great game,” said Crusaders running back Markeith Miller, whose team eliminated Mount Union in a semifinal on its way to last season’s crown. “Last year, we ended their run so I know they’re going to be ready to try to beat us next week.”
To earn their meeting with the Purple Raiders, the Crusaders (14-0) first had to deal with the Golden Eagles (13-1), who had a difficult time finding their footing in their first semifinal appearance.
On the game’s second play, Brockport quarterback Joe Germinerio’s throw went straight to UMHB cornerback Kris Brown to set up Markeith Miller’s 2-yard touchdown plunge and a 7-0 Crusaders lead less than 1½ minutes in.
Brockport then turned it over on downs at the UMHB 28-yard line, and the Crusaders moved 72 yards in 10 plays for Byron Proctor’s 1-yard TD run and a 14-0 gap. And following a fumble by Golden Eagles running back Justin Morrison on the first play of the ensuing possession, Carl Robinson III threw a 29-yard scoring pass to T.J. Josey to put UMHB up 21-0 with 3:06 still left in the opening period.
“Mary Hardin-Baylor has unbelievable athletes. What we saw today was what we saw on film,” Brockport coach Jason Mangone said. “This was uncharted territory for us, and this is a great environment here to play in for the home team — not necessarily for a visiting team. We came out a little nervous, and it showed. With that and the talent those guys have, it’s an uphill battle from there.”
The Golden Eagles, who came in averaging 40 points per game, struggled against a defense with more speed than they’re accustomed. UMHB recorded seven sacks — 3½ by senior end Ajay Fanene — and limited Brockport to 71 yards rushing.
Germinerio had 31 completions on 53 attempts but they totaled only 196 yards as the Crusaders swarmed the Golden Eagles’ receivers and never gave up a big play.
“That’s the best D-line we’ve faced and they’re just really good up front,” Germinerio said. “Their linebackers flowed wherever we went, and they’re just a really fast team.”
Brockport moved inside the UMHB 10-yard line once in each half but failed to punch it in, turning it over on downs in the closing seconds of the second quarter and getting denied by D’Andre Jackson’s interception of Germinerio’s pass into the end zone early in the fourth.
“That’s frustrating,” Mangone said. “You get down there and then not punch it in. It takes a toll on you. You’re human. When you don’t capitalize on those opportunities, it takes the wind out of your sails.”
Jones had a game-high 14 tackles and a fumble recovery as part of a UMHB defense that was on the field for 83 snaps but gave up only 3.2 yards per play.
On the other side of the ball, the Crusaders offense turned in a less-than-flashy but workmanlike performance in totaling 373 yards.
Robinson, a freshman making his sixth start, was 13-of-20 passing for 161 yards with a fumble and one poorly timed throw that resulted in an interception. Miller helped UMHB control the clock with 139 yards rushing on 20 attempts, but the Crusaders were tackled behind the line of scrimmage 11 times and were only 2-of-12 on third-down conversions.
“It’s an ongoing maturation of our quarterback and the things that he can do,” UMHB coach Pete Fredenburg said. “There’s times I felt like he could have delivered the ball, and he held it a little bit too long. But it’s a work in progress and we have to continue to work at the things we can do.
“As long as our defense can shut them out, we have a chance to win.”
Miller’s 65-yard run through the heart of the Brockport defense led to John Mowery’s 35-yard field goal for a 24-0 UMHB lead with 9 seconds left in the third, and Jackson’s interception thwarted Brockport’s only threat in the fourth.
After that, it was finally time to exhale.
“There’s more pressure to get back. We wanted it so badly that we’ve pushed the envelope,” Fredenburg said. “If you’re going to be in that arena, you have to understand that it doesn’t come easily. It’s hard work. It’s dedication. It’s all of those coaching clichés, but they’re real. These guys have dedicated themselves to get there, and they’re going back there not just because they’re handsome faces. They have worked.”