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Texas Lutheran moves past Belhaven 34-14, sets up showdown in Belton with UMHB

CJ Romero touchdown (photo by Dustin Wyatt)
CJ Romero touchdown (photo by Dustin Wyatt)
SEGUIN, Texas -- Texas Lutheran posted a 34-14 conference home win Saturday over Belhaven (Miss.), moved to 7-0 in the American Southwest Conference, and set up a first-place showdown next Saturday in Belton, Texas against defending national champion University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
 
TLU, with an overall record of 7-1 and the undefeated conference mark, will play for the outright lead in the ASC next week at Crusader Stadium. The winner of the game will receive the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Division III National Championship playoffs.
 
The Cru defeated Louisiana College 82-0 in Pineville, La. on Saturday and improved to 8-0 overall and 7-0 in the ASC. UMHB is ranked No. 1 in the AFCA poll and No. 2 in the D3football.com poll. TLU is not ranked but sits just outside the Top 25 in both the d3football.com poll and the AFCA poll.
 
Saturday at Bulldog Stadium, TLU fell behind 7-0 early to Belhaven but then scored on its next three possessions to take a 20-7 lead at the end of the first quarter.
 
Bulldog sophomore quarterback Wade Freeman (Richmond/Bush) hit CJ Romero (Odem/Odem) on a pair of touchdown passes. Freeman and Romero first hooked up on a 57-yard scoring play at the 10:34 mark of the first quarter. Their second TD connection, a 49-yarder, came with 45 seconds to play in the quarter.
 
"Obviously, we have a good run game," said Romero, a senior. "When they want to man us up across the board, it is kind of disrespectful in a way because we have some guys that can go on the outside. We just have to take advantage of that, and that is what we want to do every time they challenge us."
 
Between those Freeman-to-Romero connections, Ian Leslie scored on a one-yard run that capped a six-play, 53-yard drive.
 
The Bulldogs increased the lead to 27-7 with a one-yard scoring run from Christopher Monroe (College Station/College Station). The Monroe score ended a seven-play, 88-yard drive at the 6:41 mark of the second quarter.
 
After Belhaven scored a touchdown on the last play of the first half, to cut the TLU lead to 27-14, the two teams played a scoreless third quarter.
 
"I think we came out ready to play, and then we got up on them and lost our focus," said Carl Gustafson, TLU's third-year head coach. "I'm not sure if we were as focused on them as we should have been to finish the game. We've got to learn from that."
 
"We made some critical mistakes that we cannot make next week. But the thing about this football team is that they have always learned and used adversity to make themselves better. As coaches we want them to play their best game every week. Was this our best game? No. But we will settle for our best game next week."
 
The Bulldogs committed 12 penalties for 98 yards against Belhaven.
 
In the fourth quarter, TLU put the game away with a four-play, 17-yard scoring drive that came after a Keyshawn Holman interception. Holman (Orange/West Orange-Stark) picked off the pass at the Belhaven 36 and returned it to the Belhaven 17.
 
Four rushing plays later, TLU was back in the endzone and in possession of a 34-14 lead with 5:56 remaining in the game. Austin Mathews (Houston/Clear Creek) carried the ball three times on the final scoring drive and collected the touchdown on a four-yard run.
 
Next Saturday, TLU will be looking for its first win ever in Belton against UMHB. TLU's only win over the Crusaders came in 1999, in Seguin's Matador Stadium. The Bulldogs are 1-20 all-time against UMHB. In a 2014 first round NCAA playoff game, UMHB defeated TLU 27-20. The Cru grabbed a 47-14 victory last season in Seguin.
 
"Our mindset is just believe," said Manny Longoria, TLU's senior defensive end. "Believe that we can. We have believed this entire season. No one else believes in us besides the people in that locker room and the coaching staff. So we are going to go and get after it this week (in practice), and take it one day at a time."
 
Longoria, facing constant double teams this entire year and against Belhaven, had two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss Saturday against the Blazers.
 
Already the school's DIII-era career sacks leader, with 24.5, Longoria passed Darian Candler for the TLU DIII-era tackles for loss record. Longoria's 3.5 tackles for loss against Belhaven put him at 45.0 for his career. Candler ended his four-year career with 44.0.
 
Longoria hit the tackles for loss record in his 33rd career game at TLU.
 
"First, I credit it all to God, and I want to thank my teammates for making plays," said Longoria. "They allowed me to go out and make plays because teams didn't just have to worry about me but worry about all three of us (Longoria and fellow defensive linemen Brandon Bennett, and Jackson Worley) now. They have to pick and choose their battles, and today they chose to block Brandon and Worley, so I was able to get back and cause a little havoc."
 
Longoria finished the game with six total tackles, a pass break-up, and two quarterback hurries. TLU as a whole had 10.0 tackles for 38 yards in losses and four sacks for 19 yards in losses. Adairius Norwood (Waco/Waco) and Derek Dunn (Houston/North Shore) also had sacks.
 
"(Belhaven quarterback Hunter McEachern) made some big plays for them," said Gustafson. "He is a quality football player. With our defense, I don't think he ever really felt comfortable back there. And because of those pressures, a lot of those times we didn't get a sack, but we got pressure, and we forced the ball out of the quarterback's hand quicker than he wanted to throw it."
 
"I can't speak enough about the pressure that we got, many times with just three rushing. Keeping their quarterback out of his comfort zone was critical for us."
 
McEeachern threw for 212 yards with 20 completions on 37 attempts. He had two TD passes and two interceptions. Holman and Kedrick Ward each had picks. Ward also had a fumble recovery for 16 yards in the fourth quarter.
 
Belhaven rushed for only 67 yards on 29 carries.
 
Sam Guzman (Buda/Hays) led TLU with 10 total tackles. Jackson Worley (Keller/Timber Creek) and Daniel Enriquez (Edinburg/Vela) recorded nine and eight tackles, respectively. Worley had 2.5 tackles for loss, Enriquez forced a fumble and had two pass break-ups.
 
TLU ran the ball 49 times and gained 176 on the ground. Monroe produced 92 yards on 14 carries, and Mathews added 52 on 10 carries.
 
Freeman was 9-for-17 for 203 yards, two touchdowns passing and an interception. The interception thrown was his first of the season. Freeman now has 13 touchdowns to go along with the lone interception.
 
"We kept pounding," said Gustafson of his team's offense. "We kept grinding. Sometimes I thought they had 35 guys in the box. They had us out-numbered a few times, but our guys fought through it. We may enjoy this for about 12 hours, and then we are going to start getting ready for the next one."