|UMHB celebrates with its first Division III football national championship trophy.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
|Matt Cody runs the ball back on the interception which sealed the win for UMHB.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
SALEM -- Defense carried Mary Hardin-Baylor to the Stagg Bowl, and defense delivered the Crusaders the first championship in program history.
Matt Cody’s interception with 35 seconds to play preserved a 10-7 victory over UW-Oshkosh. The Titans were driving with a chance to tie or take the lead when Cody picked off Brett Kasper at the UMHB 22-yard-line.
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“I was just reading the quarterback’s eyes. Our D-line’s been getting to him pretty fast, so I figured the ball would come out fast,” said Cody. “I was just thinking, ‘Don’t drop it.’ I happened to be in the right place at the right time, that’s kudos to all the coaches for preparing us.”
The Crusaders defense was on its heels early. UW-Oshkosh struck first, going 64 yards in nine plays on its first possession of the game. The Crusaders uncharacteristically missed tackles on the drive. Dylan Hecker took a direct snap, made a defender miss, and plunged in from two yards out for the game’s first score.
The Crusaders, though, are no strangers to playing from behind. They trailed at some point in nine of their 15 victories this season.
Both teams were content to take what the opposing defense was giving them for most of the game. Mary Hardin-Baylor responded with a 20-play drive that kept the Titans offense sidelined for 8:23. But, the Cru came away with just three points, settling for a John Mowery field goal. Patience paid off all night for the Crusaders. They remained content to hit quick screen passes or run quarterback Blake Jackson on designed carries.
“Going into the week, we knew what type of game it was going to be with the way they play defense,” said Jackson, the game’s Most Outstanding Player. “Coaches were harping on it all week--be patient, be patient. I think our guys, including me, did a great job of doing that.”
The Titans were determined not to let the Crusaders beat them with explosive plays. They often had just one lineman, the nose tackle, put his hand down. The other ten defenders stood up and did their best to keep Jackson and the rest of UMHB’s explosive playmakers in front of them.
“Coach [Stephen] Lee, our offensive coordinator, told me I needed to have a big game and put the team on my back, especially on offense,” said Jackson. “Studying film, I realized that they would drop back a lot in coverage. I would see that’s an easy five, ten yards I can pick up with my feet. So, tonight if I didn’t see anything down the field, I just took off. My legs are tired.”
Jackson’s previous career-high for carries was 19. He nearly eclipsed that in the first half. He finished with 28 carries for 119 yards and a score, to go along with 171 yards passing on 27 attempts.
Eventually, the injury-plagued Titans defense was worn down. An 11-play, 75-yard drive capped by Jackson’s 1-yard plunge gave the Cru their first lead of the game with 4:15 to play in the first half. That was the final score of the game. After allowing a touchdown on the first drive, the Cru defense controlled the field.
“Defense wins championships. There’s not a better coach to play for than [defensive coordinator Larry] Harmon. He had us prepared every game all season,” said senior safety Baylor Mullins. “We gave up some big plays [on the first drive], but nobody got flustered. We stayed together as a team. That’s what got us here.”
Jaedon Johnson’s interception late in the second quarter preserved the lead heading into the locker room. Kasper was having his best drive of the game, making some impressive throws before he got greedy and threw into traffic near the goal line. Johnson capitalized and the Cru entered the second half with momentum.
The second half began with Mary Hardin-Baylor maintaining that momentum by stuffing Hecker on a fourth-down run. But, Markeith Miller fumbled the exchange with Jackson on the Cru’s first snap and the Titans offense was back in business. The Cru defense made sure that the error remained harmless, pushing the Titans backward.
“You know the old adage, defense wins championships, I still think that’s true,” said head coach Pete Fredenburg. “We’re very proud of our defense and our defensive coaches.”
It helped that the Crusaders offense put together three drives of at least 11 plays. That kept UW-Oshkosh on the sidelines and led to all 10 UMHB points. The last 11-play drive came late in the fourth quarter and lasted over six minutes. It resulted in a missed 19-yard field goal, but only gave the Titans 2:23 to drive 80 yards.
There were two great defenses on the field tonight. UW-Oshkosh held the Crusaders, who averaged 49.4 points per game, to just 10 points. The Titans defense came up with its biggest play of the game in the third quarter, as Jake Thein forced a Jackson fumble that was recovered by Cameron Brown at the 7-yard-line.
“I hope they continue that tradition of a great defense here. We cover well, the guys up front get after the quarterback. We’re good all over the field,” said Thein. “There’s a lot of great guys under us who I think are going to step up and hopefully get this university back to this stage.”
The differences in the game were Jackson’s legs and Mary Hardin-Baylor’s defense. The defense forced two turnovers and held UW-Oshkosh to just 215 total yards.
“The game plan worked perfect. We just fell short on offense tonight. Give all the credit to Mary Hardin-Baylor’s defense,” said Titans coach Pat Cerroni. “They’re the best team in the nation right now, defensively. There’s not a doubt in my mind.”
Defense carried the day throughout the postseason. Only 56 points were scored in the two semifinal games and Stagg Bowl combined, with no team scoring more than UMHB’s 14 in its semifinal win. It was only fitting that the defense came up with the biggest play to seal the Mary Hardin-Baylor’s first Division III football championship.
“They threw some punches, we threw some punches at them. It was a battle all night long,” said Teidrick Smith, who had one of the Cru’s three sacks. “Their tackle was getting tired, I was getting tired, too. We had to fight through it, no matter what.”
Jackson and the offense did enough to gain the lead, and the defense did enough to protect it. That balance was emblematic of the Cru’s entire season, built on trust and faith in one another.
“We trust the offense, we trust what they do. The offense feels the same way about us,” said Cody. “Whoever’s on the field is the best 11 on the field. It’s just trusting each other and protecting the family and I think that’s what each side did tonight.”