No one in the country expected Mary Hardin-Baylor to start this season 0-3 for the first time in program history. Yet, here we are. Last April, I spoke to UMHB coach Larry Harmon about the team’s demanding early schedule.
“A lot of people would probably be dreading an early schedule like we have, but it makes me get up in the morning, and it gets our kids up because it’s exciting. We’ll find out more about our team during those games,” Harmon said. “The automatic bid comes down to winning the conference, and we plan on using these nonconference games to get ready for teams like Hardin-Simmons and Howard Payne.
During his weekly press conference on Monday, Harmon’s words were similar to what he said five months ago.
“Last year, our nonconference wasn’t as tough, but we were 2-1, and we entered conference play knowing the only guarantee to get in the playoffs was to win our conference,” Harmon said. “It’s no different this year. We have to win out because you can’t rely on getting a Pool C (at-large) bid.”
Harmon seemed less concerned about his team after last week’s narrow loss to Wisconsin-Whitewater than after their previous two losses this year. That’s because UMHB might be the most improved team in the country this year.
The Crusaders 45-22 loss at Wisconsin-River Falls was not pretty. UMHB was down 35-10 at the half and finished the game with minus-five yards rushing. The Cru showed improvement during a Week 2 road loss to Trinity. But last week was the first time we saw a Cru team that we’ve come to expect over the years.
“Our kids have confidence now instead of faith. Our kids played incredibly hard and with conviction (against UW-Whitewater),” Harmon said. “We came up a little short on the scoreboard, but you can see guys making plays, caring about their teammates, and doing their job. When you see all of that on film, it makes your team’s confidence grow in each other.”
I asked Harmon what he has learned about his team after their nonconference schedule, and his response was an inside look at why he chose to play tough competition early this year.
“When you play good teams, your technique has to be sound. You can’t rely on just being better than somebody and your athletic ability because the guy across from you is just as athletic as you,” Harmon said. “It comes down to all those little techniques like your footwork, your steps, your eyes, and your hand placement. When you play quality opponents, you find out your technique flaws.”
Mary Hardin-Baylor expects to compete for a national title every year. Harmon has repeatedly expressed his desire to test his team early in the season to prepare them for the American Southwest Conference and the playoffs, and it would be irresponsible to write UMHB off after an 0-3 start.
The three teams that defeated the Cru are currently No. 4 UW-Whitewater, No. 6 Trinity, and No. 7 UW-River Falls in the D3Football.com poll. UMHB has challenging conference games ahead, with road games against No. 5 Hardin-Simmons and Howard Payne. Harmon believes the early schedule will pay dividends at the end of the season.
“We hope everybody in our conference is writing us off and not preparing for us like they would if we were undefeated,” Harmon said. “Something good will come of these trials and tribulations that we’re in, and to our kids’ credit, they haven’t wavered. They’ve gone out and worked incredibly hard to get better, and we’re a completely different team right now than we were on Week 1.”
UMHB is an entirely different team than they were on Week 1. They are a much better team. That’s why the Cru remains the favorite to win the ASC and earn an automatic bid to the playoffs.
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