For the second time in school history Saturday night, Tarleton State played on the road against a team ranked in the top 10 of Division I-FCS.
The last Tarleton team to do so was in 2001, and those Texans didn’t fare well either, losing 61-10 to Sam Houston State.
That Tarleton team was coached by Todd Whitten and went on to win a share of the Lone Star Conference championship and to reach the national quarterfinals.
This Tarleton team, also coached by Todd Whitten, now beginning his third tenure at Tarleton, lost 33-3 at FCS No. 9 McNeese State Saturday in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
By no means am I saying getting trounced by a team expected to achieve great things at the next level is indicative of Division II success to come, but I am saying there is no reason to write off this Tarleton team based solely on one loss to begin the season, likely to the best team they will face all year.
Here are my five takeaways from Saturday’s loss and a look ahead to next week’s first home matchup of the season against Southwest Baptist (Mo.).
1. Running backs out of action
Whitten has stressed the need to find quality running backs since the press conference a day after he was hired last December. He added two exciting backs – Tramaine Batten then Curtis McGregor – during preseason camp, but neither suited up Saturday night. At least McGregor was on the sidelines in street clothes. Batten was nowhere to be found. No official reason was provided for their absence from the lineup, but that led to true freshman Skyler Wetzel being forced into action along with Joseph Sadler.
Leading returning rusher Jabari Anderson made the trip but did not suit up. He was sidelined by injury throughout preseason camp.
2. Inexperienced offensive line quickly exposed
Whitten said in his radio show last Thursday he was concerned about an offensive line with three players seeing their first college action, and McNeese State quickly proved him prophetic. isaiah Golden, a 6-4, 325-pound defensive tackle who likely has an NFL future if he stays out of trouble, was a load in the middle, and so was the rest of the McNeese defensive line. Tarleton rushed for negative five, yes -5, yards, and did not convert a third down, going 0-12. The Texans had just six first downs for the game, and that led to McNeese having possession for 43 minutes and wearing down the Tarleton defense.
The good news for the Tarleton offensive line is they don’t have to face a defensive line like that again. though Southwest Baptist does have a 6-6, 310-pounder in Vice Epenesa, according to its depth chart released before its season opener against Eastern New Mexico.
The other good news is now the first-time jitters are out of the way for guys like redshirt freshman Noah Perez, a Stephenville product who started at center Saturday for Tarleton. Side note, Noah is the younger brother to Nic Perez, who also went from Stephenville to Tarleton and became a two-time all-conference lineman.
3. Simpson, Woerner battle to continue
I do believe Whitten would like to settle on a quarterback, but I don’t believe that happened Saturday. Garrett Simpson, a senior transfer from UTEP, did seem to out-play returning starter Zed Woerner, but neither was superb. Of course, they were often in easily predictable passing situations and under duress with little time to throw the ball.
In the end, Simpson was 7-18 for 120 yards, while Woerner was 5-13 for just 19 yards. Tarleton had only 134 total yards of offense.
With this being the final non-conference game before Angelo State comes calling, I foresee both Texan quarterbacks seeing action against a Southwest Baptist defense that yielded 538 yards – 444 on the ground – against ENMU.
4. Defense much improved
I saved the best for last, the biggest positive I thought came from last Saturday’s action. Even in surrendering 33 points and more than 550 yards, the Texans looked much better defensively than when they finished last in the nation in total yards allowed last season.
Tarleton made three consecutive stops in the first quarter, helping the Texans to a 3-0 lead entering the second. Field position because of a good punt return and the inability to move the ball offensively had as much as anything to do with McNeese scoring 20 in the second quarter. That, and a scoring drive kept alive by a facemask penalty that wiped out a third-down sack by junior defensive end and Stephenville product Chase Varnado.
Linebacker Cody Burtscher, the leading returning tackler in the LSC, picked up where he left off, making 10 tackles including one for loss and two sacks. Defensive end EJ Speed and linebackers Basil Jackson and Jordan Smith each made seven tackles. It was especially nice to see Speed and Jackson shine after injuries last season.
There was good, bad and ugly Saturday, but I think the Texans did about how most expected against the Southland Conference’s premier football playing member, as evidenced by its 14 conference titles and numerous playoff trips.
I am confident with some help at running back the Texans will be better offensivel. They have to be with the combination of Todd Whitten and Mason Miller leading the way, right?
Bubba Tandy was Bubba Tandy with five catches for 91 yards, though he did lose a fumble following one catch. He had a 51-yard reception from Simpson to set up the field goal for Tarleton’s only points – and lead – of the night.
More first downs, time of possession, and, of course scoring offensively will make the defense better by default, and as I said previously, the defense to me appears to be much improved anyway.
Tarleton isn’t necessarily ahead of where I thought they would be after its first game since the return of Whitten, but they certainly aren’t behind.
And regardless what the final score and stats suggest, you certainly can’t write off a Texan team that led through a quarter against the No. 9 team in all of FCS.