|Linfield's defense is one of the best units still playing, but will face its toughest test in a rematch with the Cru.
Linfield Athletics photo
By Brian Lester
Linfield senior linebacker Jake Reimer is as familiar as one can be with Mary Hardin-Baylor.
He laughs but is serious when he points out that he and his teammates have played the Cru more often in his career than they have squared off against opponents from their own conference.
This is the eighth time overall the two programs are facing off, including the fourth consecutive in the postseason, and it’s safe to say a rivalry has blossomed between two schools more than 2,000 miles apart.
“I think it’s a rivalry where we respect each other,” Reimer said. “We’ve played good games against each other and it’s always a challenge and a lot of fun to play each other.”
Linfield head coach Joseph Smith calls the rivalry unique and interesting.
“It’s unusual for two teams so far apart to play each other at the frequency we have,” Smith said. “I have the utmost respect for their program and Coach (Pete) Fredenburg. I’m impressed with the way he coaches his team. They are incredibly sound at what they do.”
The feeling is mutual at UMHB. Fredenburg respects what the Wildcats do and the program they have built, but he warns it’s not easy beating the same team twice in one year.
“It’s difficult to beat Linfield once, much less twice,” Fredenburg said. “We know each other so well. The critical thing is to get guys lined up right and see if we can make plays. They’ll try to do the same thing.”
The latest edition of this rivalry will mark the second consecutive year in which the Wildcats and Cru have met in both the regular season and postseason. UMHB has won the last three encounters, including a 24-3 victory out in Oregon in Week 2 of this season.
Taking something beneficial from that first showdown this season isn’t easy to do. A lot has changed since September, especially at quarterback for Linfield, which now has Smith’s son, Wyatt, as the starter.
The younger Smith, who is only a freshman, has started three consecutive games and has thrown for 732 yards and seven touchdowns during the impressive stretch.
Linfield has scored more than 20 points in each of those games after putting up 12 and 16 points, respectively, in the two games before Smith was made the starter.
Smith connected on 17 of his 24 attempts for 226 yards and a touchdown in a 27-13 win over Hardin-Simmons in the playoff opener last week.
Joe Smith called it a fun experience being able to coach his own son and added he’s pleased with the progress the young signal caller has made.
“He’s playing well but is certainly young and inexperienced,” Smith said. “It’s not ideal to play a freshman, and I don’t know if I have in all of my years here. It’s unique and is what it is, and he’s working hard to get better every day. It’s great to see his daily growth.”
How the personnel changes have impacted his team as a whole since the last time Linfield and UMHB met on the field is a difficult question for Smith to answer. This Wildcats team is different from the one that took the field back in September.
“A lot has changed but I think we have slowly gotten back into playoff form. We’re not necessarily where I’d like us to be, but we are getting close,” Smith said. “Mary Hardin-Baylor has so much talent. I’m not sure it matters who they have on the field. We’re very respectful of their depth.”
What isn’t difficult to determine is that both programs have gained a great deal from facing off on almost a regular basis.
“They bring out the best in us,” Fredenburg said. “The thing they bring out is a strong desire to play our best, and consequently, we want to give our guys a real good game plan because it’s going to be a chess match during the game.”
Smith believes the Cru have reached a point where they’re almost perfect because of the number of times they have played his squad.
“In all frankness, I think their program has gotten better from playing us,” Smith said. “We’ve exposed issues each time and they have slowly fixed them, and now they have no issues. They are an incredible football team.”
The Cru is 11-0 and the reigning national champion. That can be an intimidating thing for some opponents.
Not for Linfield, which enters the game at 9-1.
“It’s what everyone wants. You want to play the best in the country, and my teammates and I have been lucky enough to have those experiences in our careers,” Reimer said. “You get to see how you stack up against them. These types of games are the reason you put all of this work in.”
The familiarity factor helps to a degree. While the Wildcats can’t mimic the size, strength and speed of the Cru in practice this week, they understand what it’s going to take to win against a UMHB team that is putting up an average of 42 points per game and has won 26 in a row.
Linfield leans more on its defense, allowing a hair under 11 points per game.
“We have to keep the points down,” Smith said. “We’re not going to try and win this game 45-42. We are a defensive team. We have to run the ball, protect the quarterback and have good field position.”
In other words, it comes down to execution on both sides of the ball, something UMHB is focused on as well.
“We can’t turn the ball over and we can’t give up big plays,” Fredenburg said. “We have to go out and play hard and execute our game plan.”
This is a showdown every player dreams about playing in and Reimer loves the pressure that blankets a postseason game. While these two teams have quite a history against each other, only Saturday afternoon in Texas matters.
“Both teams are trying to keep their seasons alive,” Reimer said. “Trying to extend your season and be in that chase for a national championship, that’s what makes it fun. We can’t wait to play.”