By Pat Coleman
BELTON, Texas – De’Nerian Thomas scored on an acrobatic flip into the end zone, Aaron Sims took a punt back 90 yards for a score and the Mary Hardin-Baylor defense held UW-Whitewater to 88 first-half yards and had four takeaways for the game as the Cru booked their third consecutive trip to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, defeating the Warhawks 31-14.
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- 2018 All-Region team
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Saturday’s national semifinal stood in stark contrast to every previous meeting between the two Purple Powers, in that this time it was the Cru coming out on top. And the first Stagg Bowl in Texas will indeed feature a Texas team. Mary Hardin-Baylor joins Augustana, Mount Union and UW-Whitewater as Division III teams who have played in three consecutive Stagg Bowls.
UMHB will face Mount Union in Stagg Bowl XLVI, at Woodforest Bank Stadium in Shenandoah, Texas, at 6 p.m. CT on Friday night, Dec. 14.
"It's a great win for our program, to finally beat UW-Whitewater, which has been obviously a very difficult task, is very rewarding for all of us," said UMHB coach Pete Fredenburg.
The Cru (14-0) got three takeaways in the second half and Markeith Miller ran for 91 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to seal the win.
"I think our guys have done an amazing job all year long of getting turnovers," Fredenburg said. "The difference in any kind of big ballgame like that (is turnovers).
"You kind of equate a game like this to two heavyweight boxers boxing and when finally somebody's going to give up or have something happen, turnovers just break your back."
|De'Nerian Thomas flips over the top of a would-be tackler to get into the end zone for the Cru's first score.
Photo by Joe Fusco, d3photography.com
The Cru (14-0) got on the board with their first drive of the second quarter, using both quarterbacks. Jase Hammack threw a 20-yard slant to Jonel Reed on third-and-14 to get the ball into UW-Whitewater territory and found K.J. Miller in the flat for a gain down to the Warhawks 28. Markeith Miller ripped off a run down to the 12. After a holding call, De’Nerian Thomas hit T.J. Josey on the left side to get down to the 4, setting up third-and-2. That’s when Thomas made the first big athletic play of the game. He took the snap and, finding nobody open, made a sprint toward the right-hand corner with two defenders in pursuit, then flipped over defensive back Bailey Breunig and landed in the end zone for the touchdown.
A 31-yard field goal for Anthony Avila made it 10-0. The ensuing drive saw Whitewater (12-1) stall out at midfield and it seemed as if the Warhawks had a chance to pin UMHB deep. But Zach Lichosik kicked a line-drive punt which Sims caught on his own 10, backpedaling. He found plenty of open room to the left side, the opposite side of the field, and was in the end zone 90 yards later to make it 17-0 just before half.
"Obviously teams get better within the playoffs and you know you don't get too many returns, so I knew if we got a couple of good blocks I had a chance of going all the way," said Sims. It was his fifth punt return for a touchdown of the season.
"The speed piece of their punt returner, that guy, whoa, holy buckets," said UW-Whitewater coach Kevin Bullis. "We knew we had to keep him contained and we did the entire time, other than the one play."
The Warhawks came out in the second half and put together their first offensive big play of the game, as Cole Wilber hit Derek Kumerow for a 23-yard gain. The Warhawks had thrown for just 20 yards in the first half. Ronny Ponick ran for 28 yards on the drive. Wilber also scrambled out of a sack to get down to the 10-yard line and two plays later, he hit tight end Bryce Bellefeuille for a 2-yard touchdown to get UW-Whitewater on the board.
"A lot of times people assume we go in the halftime and we're just making 20 different adjustments and changes. We really didn't," Bullis said. "We said, 'we're going to run our offense and we're going to execute it better.' "
The Warhawks couldn’t capitalize on two consecutive interception attempts midway through the third quarter, but got the job done the next time around. Bryce Leszczynski picked off Hammack and returned the ball 64 yards, but the Warhawks couldn’t punch it into the end zone and kicker Wojciech Gasienica hit the left upright from 24 yards out, leaving the score 17-7 with 3:05 left in the third quarter. On the ensuing drive, Holten Einkauf hit Derek Sides on a fake punt deep in Cru territory. The Warhawks later got the stop at midfield, but UMHB got the ball right back as a Wilber pass hit Kumerow in the hands and deflected right to cornerback Keith Gipson for an interception.
That was Whitewater’s third turnover of the game.
The Cru made the Warhawks pay, as Miller ran for 28 yards in three plays, including a 10-yard touchdown to extend the lead out to 24-7.
Wilber completed five of six passes for 44 yards and Ronny Ponick grinded out 12 yards in three carries to get the Warhawks in the end zone with 5:47 left. But Jefferson Fritz covered the onside kick for the Cru, and Mary Hardin-Baylor put the nail in the coffin as Miller ran for 10, 5, 1, 13 and 15 yards to cap it off with his second TD of the day. Fritz intercepted a pass on UWW's ensuing possession to send it to the victory formation.
Miller finished with 168 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries, with 91 of those yards coming in the fourth quarter.
"I just knew as a leader on offense that I just wanted to provide that spark," Miller said. "I knew that once I get going, we'd be able to waste some clock with some key first downs and ride ride the wave."
UMHB limited Ponnick to 70 yards on 14 carries, and held Alex Peete to 65 yards on 16 carries as well in the win.