By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (September 26, 2016) — From my perspective high above in the press box at Kimbrough Memorial Stadium in Canyon Saturday, Tarleton State showed at least as much progress in its first season under Todd Whitten in a loss to West Texas A&M as the Texans did in an easy win the week prior against Angelo State.
Tarleton lost, 37-25, but had a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter despite falling behind 31-12 with less than nine minutes left when WTAMU scored a touchdown off a Tarleton turnover for the second time.
So what is there to like from a tough Lone Star Conference loss to a longtime rival? This…
1. Tarleton is fighting
When Tarleton fell behind 31-12 on a fumble return for a WTAMU touchdown with less than nine minutes remaining in the game, I braced myself. Forgive me, but I saw last season’s team, and they may have lost the game 45-12. This Texan team, however, scored on a 60-yard pass from Zed Woerner to Bubba Tandy, got a quick three-and-out then struck again on a short TD run by Curtis McGregor, his second in as many weeks. Suddenly, the Texans were within 31-25, and may have completed the comeback if not for a juggling third-down catch that led to a touchdown on the ensuing WTAMU drive.
2. Zed Woerner was dealing
Woerner hit Jeff Thomas eight times for 132 yards and Bubba Tandy five times for 125. When it was all said and done, the junior quarterback from Marble Falls had 368 passing yards and 3 TDs, the other to Del’Michael High, who made a leaping catch and tapped his toe down just inside the sideline in the end zone to get Tarleton on the board midway through the second quarter. Woerner was 28-42, or 67 percent, through the air.
3. Effective pass rush
Sure, three of the sacks were largely thanks to coverage downfield, but Tarleton made four sacks Saturday, running its total to 18.5 through four games. This after the Texans tallied just 18 sacks all of last season. It’s one of the most noticeable improvements to a Texan defense that has a healthy EJ Speed at defensive end this year, Chase Varnado being Chase Varnado and a talented new rusher in defensive end Birdel Hodge. Varnado, a redshirt junior, has five sacks this season including two at WTAMU, while Speed and linebacker Cody Burtscher each have 3.5. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before Hodge gets a few, as well.
But Saturday’s game was a loss, so what must improve?
1. The defense must tackle better
There were a lot of attempted arm tackles Saturday evening, and that won’t cut it against Devon Paye – 148 yards and a TD – or any good LSC back. Time and again, Paye slipped past arm tackles, made defenders miss altogether or just broke contain for a good gain. The Texans are allowing 164.5 yards per game on the ground, and have allowed a 100-yard rusher three straight weeks.
2. The run blocking must become more consistent
Really, it’s the offensive line as a whole that must be more consistent, and it was no secret this would be a concern with two redshirt freshmen and other inexperienced players up front. Tarleton had a couple good weeks running the ball, with Joseph Sadler topping 100 yards against Southwest Baptist and ASU, but he had 10 carries for two yards and a pair of fumbles Saturday, while leading rusher Curtis McGregor ran 12 times for 46 yards. The Texans rushed for a total of 60 yards on 30 carries, and in a Todd Whitten offense – in any offense, actually – that won’t cut it.
3. Clean up the special teams
West Texas A&M blocked an extra point following the first Tarleton touchdown, and it left the Texans scrambling on PAT attempts the rest of the night. Tarleton had three kicks blocked against ASU just the week prior, so it’s a trend that must be cleaned up. And while the Texans are improving on kick return, it’s kick coverage unit gave up a big return and was fortunate to have it called back for offsetting penalties.