|All Jefferson Fritz does is make plays in big moments, especially in the postseason.
Joe Fusco, d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
The numbers pop off the screen--91, 68, 77, 80, 80, 75.
Mary Hardin-Baylor leads the nation in scoring at 57.4 points per game. The Cru hung that 75-spot on Berry in a second round playoff game.
Those numbers may distract you from the equally impressive numbers on the other side of the ledger. On Saturday, St. John’s became just the third opponent this season to score multiple touchdowns in a game against the Cru. None of those three teams scored a touchdown in the first half of their loss to the undefeated Crusaders.
Mary Hardin-Baylor also leads the nation in scoring defense, yielding just 7.5 points per game. The Cru have pitched three shutouts. The defense has allowed just 13 touchdowns, while scoring nine of its own.
“I think our stats and our play speak for itself. We have athletes all around the field and feel like we can match up against any offense in the country,” said senior linebacker Jalen Martin. “Our goal is to shut out everybody and stop people from getting into the end zone. That doesn’t change from game to game.”
The defense has forced a nation-best 41 turnovers. Despite playing three different quarterbacks, the offense has coughed the ball up just 11 times. Not surprisingly, the Cru leads the nation in turnover margin.
“If you work it enough and you have veteran players who are athletic enough, then you’ve got something. The biggest thing is having the guys who can do it,” said defensive coordinator Larry Harmon of his team’s knack for takeaways. “We feel like if we can make teams one-dimensional and get the ball in the air, we’ve got really good skilled DBs who are going to make the plays.”
Going up against that potent offense each day in practice makes the Cru defense better. On game days, they don’t face outside receivers as big and strong as T.J. Josey or Jonel Reed. They won’t have to chase slot receivers as quick and fast as K.J. Miller or Aaron Sims.
“Our offense gives us great looks in practice all year. They make us better and we make them better,” said sophomore safety Jefferson Fritz. “It’s definitely a competitive atmosphere every day in practice. There’s no wide receivers out there that can compare to ours.”
Fritz leads the nation with 10 interceptions. He had his coming out party in last year’s Stagg Bowl, intercepting two passes. Before facing Fritz and the Crusaders in that game, Mount Union quarterback D’Angelo Fulford had only thrown three interceptions all season. St. John’s quarterback Jackson Erdmann had been intercepted five times all season, and not at all since October 13. The Cru picked him off three times in Saturday’s quarterfinal win; Fritz snagged two of them.
“When the ball is in the air, we’ve got to go get it,” said Fritz. “We know our defensive line will take care of us, so we’ve got to take care of them too.”
Fritz is a ball hawk and has the skill set to play nearly any position on the field. When a coach complements a defensive players’ receiving skills, he usually adds a qualifier--”Great hands, for a defensive back.” That’s not the case with Fritz.
“You want him where he can be around the most field and chart where the ball is going to be thrown because he’s got incredible hand-eye coordination. He’s got some of the best hands I’ve ever seen,” said Harmon of his star sophomore. “He could be a wide receiver or quarterback. If you’re playing in the sandlot when you’re a kid, he’d be everybody’s first pick.”
Martin was recruited to Belton as a wide receiver. He was then moved to safety. He’s found his home at linebacker, leading the team with 10 pass breakups and ranking second with four interceptions to go along with 52 tackles.
“He played deep safety, then we found that he had more instincts the closer he got to the line of scrimmage,” said Harmon. “He is a student of the game. He’s faster on the field because of the work he puts in in the film room.”
Extra work has prepared the Cru for the challenge ahead of them this week. A victory on Saturday will grant the program its third straight Stagg Bowl berth. Fourteen extra weeks of postseason practices over the past three years has helped prepare the next wave of Crusaders who served as backups during the championship run of 2016 and the runner-up finish in 2017.
“Any time you’re able to play this far into the postseason, it helps you. Even your freshmen get more practice experience from extending your postseason,” said Harmon. “Their football life, it doesn’t get fast. In ‘16, it was fast for us. It felt like every week got faster for us. It was a whirlwind. There’s a lot more familiarity and comfort with it now. Nobody’s waiting to be told what the process is.”
There is one unique wrinkle to this year’s run. The Crusaders know that a win in the semifinal means playing nearly a home game in the Stagg Bowl. For the first time, the Division III title game will be held in Texas. Shenandoah, the site of this year’s Stagg Bowl, is only 160 miles from Belton.
“The home crowd back here throughout the playoffs is something that we really wanted. We’ve got our mind set on that,” said Martin.
“I wouldn’t say pressure, but I think we’re really excited. It’s more exciting that we get the opportunity,” said Fritz. “We’ve just got one more game [to get there]. We plan on taking care of business.”
That one game will be another big challenge for the battle-tested Crusaders. On their road to the Stagg Bowl, the Cru have faced the No. 7, No. 20, No. 3, and No. 5-ranked teams in the final Top 25 poll of the regular season.
“You can’t talk about the Stagg Bowl when you’ve got Wisconsin-Whitewater staring you right in the face. But the kids know what’s on the line,” said Harmon. “To have a Texas team play in the first one in Texas would be very special. We know that we’ve got a lot of work to do to make that happen.”
Sunday was a learning day for the defense that had been nearly impenetrable all season. Watching film to find how Erdmann carved them up for 418 yards and two touchdowns was instructive. Big plays, including Fritz’s game-clinching interception in the end zone, preserved the 21-18 win. At this point of the season, the Crusaders know that they have to learn from each mistake, something Harmon says has been a strength of the unit this season.
“We’re just confident that everybody will play well and plays for each other and we’ve got each other’s backs when it comes down to crunch time. Our team chemistry is what holds it together,” said Martin. “You’ve got to be prepared for everything. There’s not a bad team left. You’ve got to minimize your mistakes and rise to the occasion. With more games, comes more experience and more tests. The experience of the past couple of years plays in our favor. We know that the pressure rises, so we have to rise with it.”