MCMINNVILLE, Ore. — After taking 19 years to capture its first national championship, Mary Hardin-Baylor isn’t ready to release its grip on the trophy.
That was the message the No. 1-ranked Crusaders sent to the NCAA Division III world Saturday afternoon, when they shut down No. 6 Linfield in a 24-3 statement-making victory at Maxwell Field.
“This is a big statement to let people know we’re still here, still fighting, and we’re the same team from last year pretty much,” UMHB senior receiver and kick returner Bryce Wilkerson said. “We’re going to play hard, play fast, and we’re not done yet.”
It was Wilkerson who provided one of the day’s biggest plays to help the Crusaders win in McMinnville for the first time in three tries.
With UMHB (2-0) holding a 10-3 halftime lead following Linfield’s field goal on the final play before intermission, Wilkerson received the opening kickoff of the second half at the 5-yard line, headed toward the sideline, then cut up the right hash and raced 95 yards untouched to the end zone.
“I knew I had to take the opportunity that I had. I saw an open lane, so I took it. And that was it,” Wilkerson said. “It was just me and the kicker, and the kicker will never tackle me. I made him miss, and that was it.”
Wilkerson’s return sucked the life out of the home crowd, who saw their Wildcats (1-1) muster only 141 total yards and lose to the Crusaders for the third straight time. Linfield has gone nine straight quarters against UMHB without scoring a touchdown.
“For the first couple drives, we didn’t have negative plays,” Linfield coach Joseph Smith said. “When you have negative plays on offense against this defense, it’s really challenging. There are some other defenses that you can survive those long downs. But against this team, you do not want to get behind the chains.”
For the second straight week, the Crusaders failed to produce the video game-type numbers to match last year’s national championship unit. For the second consecutive Saturday, it didn’t matter, though.
UMHB’s defense harassed Linfield quarterbacks Troy Fowler and Aiden Wilder, sacking them three times among 11 tackles for losses by the Crusaders, who allowed only 34 yards rushing and 107 passing.
It was a far cry from UMHB’s last trip to McMinnville in 2015, when the Crusaders blew a large lead in a crushing quarterfinal playoff defeat.
“Last time we were here, we took a loss we shouldn’t have taken when we blew a big lead. We didn’t want to feel that again,” said UMHB senior defensive tackle Haston Adams, who spent much of Saturday in Linfield’s backfield. “We came in with a lot of confidence in what we had planned. A lot of guys knew they had to step up this week to beat a time like Linfield.
“This team can be great. Last year playing Linfield, it changed our team’s mindset. I think it will do the same this year.”
The knockout punch came with 4:31 remaining, when the Crusaders marched 89 yards in 11 plays. Isaiah Townes took care of the final 35 yards when he fought off coverage to haul in T.J. Josey’s pass in the end zone. That finished the day for Josey, who was 12-of-17 for 130 yards in his second start at quarterback.
Josey also chipped in 77 yards rushing on nine carries, including a 74-yarder on the second offensive snap for the Crusaders, who led 7-0 in the opening minutes and never trailed.
Markeith Miller turned in his second straight workhorse effort with 96 yards on 18 carries as UMHB employed an offense that played it close to the vest and controlled the clock.
“There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think big plays are coming. And they have to because it still comes down to the same thing: if they’re defending the run, you have to throw it,” Crusaders coach Pete Fredenburg said.
The lead widened when UMHB capped a nine-play, 80-yard drive with John Mowery’s 44-yard field goal for a 10-0 advantage midway through the second quarter.
Linfield benefitted from a UMHB mistake to get on the board right before halftime. Crusaders punter Zane Boles had to chase a low snap, and his rushed punt traveled only 19 yards, setting up the Wildcats at the UMHB 45-yard line in the final minute. Linfield capitalized with Willy Warne’s 51-yard field goal on the last play of the half, cutting its gap to 10-3.
The Crusaders hurt themselves in the opening half with six penalties for 68 yards – 30 yards of which came when defensive end Ajay Fanene was flagged for roughing the passer and unsportsmanlike conduct on the same play.
“We had a good meeting at halftime because I felt like we messed around with them enough in the first half,” Fredenburg said. “We kept shooting ourselves in the foot.”
UMHB was penalized just one for 5 yards after halftime, and the Crusaders totaled 190 yards on the ground and 163 through the air as they stretched their winning streak to 17 games.
“Beating Linfield here is a big deal for us,” Fredenburg said. “They’re a great program. I don’t know that they’re a great football team right now, but they certainly do a great job of coaching and they’ll bring them along. Coming up here, and winning up here is awesome.”
NOTES: Reserve linebacker Tommy Brown and starting linebacker Santos Villarreal both posted a team-high seven tackles for the Crusaders. ... UMHB returns home to host Texas Lutheran at 6 p.m. next Saturday.