BELTON — It is said the third time is a charm. Apparently, so is the third quarter.
The University of Mary Hardin-Baylor watched an early 9-0 advantage completely vanish as longtime postseason rival Wesley College scored 10 unanswered points in the second quarter to take a 17-12 lead into halftime. The Crusaders ran eight plays in the quarter for negative 21 yards.
After losing to the Wolverines in the NCAA Division III quarterfinals in each of the past two seasons, it appeared as if history might be repeating itself yet again, but the Crusaders outscored Wesley 13-0 in the third quarter, propelling them to a 32-20 victory to finally get past their two-time semifinals roadblock.
“It goes without saying, this is an awesome win and an awesome feeling right now,” Mary Hardin-Baylor head coach Pete Fredenburg said during the postgame news conference.
While the No. 2 Crusaders overcame a huge mental and physical obstacle by defeating the fifth-ranked team in the nation, Fredenburg was quick to point out the win was simply a hurdle en route to the program’s ultimate goal.
“We are serious about (winning a national championship),” the coach said. “We’ve said it, we’ve defined it, we came out and planned for it, and we are taking steps in the direction. We’ve got two more, and we understand that they are big, but don’t (underestimate my players). They can do anything they want.”
The victory sets up a semifinal game Saturday against No. 1 Mount Union, which advanced to its 18th consecutive semifinal appearance with a 72-17 win against Widener. Tentatively, the game will be played on Mount Union’s home field at Alliance, OH, but the NCAA will make an official announcement Sunday.
For much of the game, however, it was unclear if the Crusaders (13-0) would advance.
After a safety and an 18-yard touchdown pass from LiDarral Bailey to Jon Ross gave Mary Hardin-Baylor a 9-0 advantage, the Wolverines scored their first points of the afternoon on quarterback Justin Sottilare’s 44-yard pass to Steve Koudossou.
Then, things began to go downhill for the Crusaders offensively.
Mary Hardin-Baylor settled for a field goal in the final second of the opening quarter after failing to reach the end zone following a first-and-goal situation from the 7-yard line. A second-quarter fumble gave Wesley a short field, and the Wolverines (10-2) took full advantage, scoring on Askia Jahad’s three-yard run to claim their first lead of the game, 14-12. The touchdown occurred after the Crusaders were called offside on a fourth-and-1 field-goal situation.
On the ensuing possession, Darius Wilson lost a fumble on the first play from scrimmage and a 22-yard field goal gave Wesley a 17-12 lead heading into halftime.
The third quarter proved to be a different story, though, as Bailey and the rest of the Crusaders’ offense began clicking. Wilson caught a 20-yard touchdown pass and Caleb Moore hauled in the first of two second-half touchdowns, giving Mary Hardin-Baylor an eight-point cushion, 25-17, heading into the fourth quarter, where the Crusaders’ defense produced a couple stops and the offense secured the victory on Moore’s 23-yard touchdown reception with 7:47 remaining.
“We just attacked them with the quick game,” Bailey, who completed 16 of 20 passes for 195 passing yards and four touchdowns to go with 95 rushing yards on 17 carries. “We just came out and executed the offense like we should have done in the first half. That was the only difference.”
Crusaders halfback Elijah Hudson had a big second half, rushing for 88 of his game-high 103 yards after intermission as his straightforward running style left a number of potential tacklers on the ground behind him.
“I was just playing with everything inside of me; my entire heart and my entire body,” the junior said. “I’ve got a great offensive line, and they make my job easy. I just have to run the ball.”
Defensively, the Crusaders produced several key stops in the second half, including Mike Maldonado’s third-quarter interception. Senior linebacker Javicz Jones recorded a team-high 10 tackles, a forced fumble and broke up a pair of passes. He also posted one of Mary Hardin-Baylor’s nine tackles for a loss.
After the win, Jones addressed the importance of next week’s game against Mount Union.
“It is a big ballgame, but it is a big ballgame because it is the next one,” Jones said. “We take each game step by step. They are the next opponent we have to face, and we are just going to go out and work hard to make sure we don’t let anything slip away.”