SALEM, Va. — For the first 14 games of the season, Mary Hardin-Baylor had overcome the shortcomings of its offense with a ferocious defense. But when the offense wilted again — this time under the national spotlight — the Crusaders’ hopes of back-to-back championships melted away, even in the freezing air of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
UMHB failed to convert its only scoring chance early in the second quarter and its attack never gained any traction again, dooming the top-ranked Crusaders in a 12-0 loss to No. 2 Mount Union on Friday night at Salem Stadium in the lowest-scoring affair in Stagg Bowl history.
The Purple Raiders (15-0) snapped the 29-game winning streak of the Crusaders (14-1) — last year’s NCAA Division III champions — and celebrated Mount Union’s 13th title by limiting UMHB to only 69 yards over the final three periods and 144 yards for the night.
“Really and truly, we’ve had several games where we had issues with people coming at us with pressure, and we didn’t slide the protection and deliver the ball. It ultimately cost us this game,” Crusaders coach Pete Fredenburg said.
It was the first shutout in the Stagg Bowl since 1982 and the first time UMHB was blanked since a 28-0 loss to Mississippi College on Oct. 17, 1998, in just the sixth game in the program’s history.
“This is very rewarding. Our defense was confident. We saw what Mary Hardin-Baylor did on film and felt like we could get back to playing our base defense,” Purple Raiders coach Vince Kehres said. “We didn’t have to put a bunch of special stuff in the game plan, and that gave our guys a lot of confidence. And our guys played that way.”
The Purple Raiders held the Crusaders to the goose egg by shutting down the run and registering eight sacks, many of which came when UMHB freshman quarterback Carl Robinson III — and sophomore Kyle Jones on his one series — simply held the ball too long. Stagg Bowl MVP Nick Brish had a game-high 10 tackles and 1½ of Mount Union’s sacks.
“The thing we didn’t do well was execute at quarterback. (Robinson) was holding the ball too long,” Fredenburg said. “That’s one reason we inserted Kyle, but we didn’t get any improvement there. It went from bad to worse then. It’s disappointing that we didn’t get rid of the ball quicker and give ourselves a chance to move the ball. We moved it some when we threw the ball on time. When we held it, it was going to be a sack.”
The Crusaders’ best chance to get in the end zone came on an 11-play, 48-yard drive that started late in the first quarter and ended early in the second at the Mount Union 12-yard line when Robinson’s pass to Bryce Wilkerson on fourth-and-18 came up 6 yards short of the sticks. The Crusaders gained only 53 yards over the remaining 47½ minutes.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t get some points in the first half,” Fredenburg said. “I think that would have made a difference. I felt like we really had some opportunities to score in the first half and just didn’t get it done.”
UMHB freshman safety Jefferson Fritz intercepted D’Angelo Fulford’s pass at the Crusaders 1 to thwart a Mount Union drive midway through the second quarter, but the Purple Raiders got the ball back on the very next play when Gabe Brown picked off Robinson. The Purple Raiders then converted a third down and a fourth down to set up Alex Louthan’s 31-yard field goal for the only points of the first half.
The Crusaders had the wind at their backs in the third quarter but did nothing with it. Robinson was picked off by Louis Berry only three plays after Fritz intercepted Fulford for the second time, and Jones was sacked twice on his only series of the night. UMHB, which was hampered by the absence of receiver T.J. Josey — who injured his ribs on the Crusaders’ opening drive of the game — picked up only 20 yards in the third when it was going with the wind.
“I think (Robinson) just got overwhelmed with all the sacks and the offense not going anywhere,” said Crusaders junior running back Markeith Miller, who was limited to 35 yards rushing on 20 carries. “We weren’t able to execute our offense. Everything we did, they were ready for it.”
Mount Union gained some breathing room 4 minutes into the fourth when receiver Justin Hill got behind Fritz and UMHB cornerback Reginald Cole, then leaped and reached over the Crusaders defenders to haul in Fulford’s 42-yard touchdown pass for a 10-0 lead. And three plays later when Robinson was sacked in the end zone for a safety, the Purple Raiders all but had the walnut and bronze trophy in their grasp.
“We needed a play to be made,” Hill said. “I’m an impact player, so I had to make a play.”
Mount Union won despite totaling only 229 yards. The Purple Raiders were held 263 yards and 41 points below their season averages by a UMHB defense that got seven tackles each from senior tackle Brazos Fuller and junior linebacker Tommy Brown but managed to sack Fulford only once.
“We have great players on defense, and we have great coaches. We did what we’ve done all year. You can’t do much more than that,” Fuller said. “We can’t do much more than that.”
One year after capturing their program’s first national title, the Crusaders were left to take stock of what went wrong in hopes of correcting it before the 2018 Stagg Bowl on the outskirts of Houston.
“Some of this was preventable,” Fredenburg said. “I’m not taking anything away from Mount Union. They’re very good, but so are we. But we didn’t make the plays at the critical times, and they did.”