By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (October 9, 2016) — Zed Woerner matched his career high of four touchdown passes and that was after Bubba Tandy returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
But even after Tarleton led 21-0, it wasn’t until a sack followed by a tackle on the final play, both by tackle Dariat McDuff, that the Texans could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
The big early lead was just enough for Tarleton (3-3, 3-1) to survive the best shot of Western New Mexico (2-4, 2-3) quarterback Javia Hall as Tarleton held on, 44-41, at Memorial Stadium Saturday.
Woerner matched his career high for touchdown passes that he set a week earlier – he now has 11 TD strikes the last three games – and Joseph Sadler topped 100 yards rushing for the third time this season.
It appeared Tarleton had it won after Sadler scored on a 14-yard run to open up a 44-34 lead with 2:39 remaining.
But Hall, who was 32-45 passing for 447 yards and four touchdowns, had other plans.
Hall needed just two passes to guide WNMU into Tarleton territory, then he found speedster DeAndre Williams for a 37-yard TD that pulled the Mustangs within a field goal with 1:40 still to play.
That shouldn’t have mattered, except Tarleton and Sadler, who rushed for 111 of his 123 yards after halftime, couldn’t move the sticks with WNMU loading the box, and the Texans were forced to punt the ball away.
Hall and company had just 30 seconds and no timeouts to work with, and he started the drive with a 10-yard pass before the sack by McDuff left the Mustangs in desperation mode. Hall spiked the ball to stop the clock with six seconds remaining, long enough for one play.
He hit D’Angelo Bowie with an eight yard pass, and as he was being tackled, Bowie lateraled the ball to Treydonte Hill. But McDuff was pursuing the action and slammed Hill down from behind, causing a fumble that was quickly covered up by defensive end EJ Speed to seal the Tarleton victory.
Tarleton won despite 13 penalties for 123 yards. That included a holding penalty that wiped out a fourth-down touchdown pass from Woerner to Thomas, another hold on the final drive while trying to run out the clock, and a defensive holding call that negated an interception and helped WNMU along on its final touchdown drive. The Texans also had a punt blocked for the second straight week.
But the special teams weren’t all bad. Tandy’s kick return to start the game went for 100 yards, and Kason Fornes used a 34-yard punt return to set up a field goal. Also helping to overcome the miscues were five touchdowns in five trips to the red zone and eight conversions on 12 third downs.
And Woerner stayed hot, despite tossing a pair of interceptions. The junior was 27-36 for 284 yards. He found Jeff Thomas five times for 116 yards including a touchdown when Tarleton sent three receivers to the tight side of the field and isolated Thomas in one-on-one coverage on the wide side. Woerner tossed a perfect lob that Thomas caught in stride behind the lone defender before racing away for the 68-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead less than five minutes into the game.
WNMU drove, but a pass by Hall was batted into the air by Basil Jackson and picked off by Cody Burtscher, who led Tarleton with 12 tackles. The Texans were in the end zone again just more than four minutes into the second quarter with a 12-yard strike from Woerner to High for the 21-0 advantage that would slowly bleed away.
High had another big game with two touchdowns for the second straight week. He just missed a third in the fourth quarter, as he tried unsuccessfully to drag a foot inbounds while catching a pass in the back of the end zone. High never got loose for a deep ball like in the prior victory over Texas-Permian Basin, but he pieced together a good night with nine catches for 69 yards.
Williams rushed for a 13-yard score midway through the second to begin bringing WNMU back, and the Mustangs pulled within 21-13 on a Hall to Raeshawn Lee touchdown 25 seconds before intermission. The extra point kick sailed wide to the right.
Woerner threw a pick trying to lead Tarleton into field goal position as the first half ended, and WNMU carried its newfound momentum into the second half.
Hall hooked up again with Lee, this time for a 33-yard score on the second play of the third quarter, then connected with Rodney Lawson for the ensuing two-point conversion, tying the game at 21-21 less than a minute into the new half.
But Tarleton was quick to restore order. The Texans answered with a nine-play, 75-yard drive that ended with High reeling in his second touchdown on a 10-yard strike from Woerner. A WNMU coach sprinted all the way down to the five-yard line – way outside the coaching box – to argue that High pushed off to make the catch, and the coach drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Tarleton missed the extra point and led by just six, but the Texan defense allowed just one first down before forcing a punt.
Tarleton picked up a first down on a pass to High then turned to some trickery in the form of a halfback pass from Jabari Anderson to Tandy for 19 yards. Tandy tossed an illegal forward lateral at the end of the play, but two snaps later Woerner hit freshman tight end Brant Bailey for the latter’s first career touchdown from 17 yards out and the lead grew to 34-21.
Hall and the Mustangs cut it back to six before the end of the third on a 12-play, 80-yard drive that culminated in a one-yard plunge into the end zone by Oly Ta’ase.
Tarleton faced a 4th and 19 from the WNMU 31 on its ensuing possession, and Woerner hit Thomas on a post route in the end zone only to see holding force a punt. But the Tarleton defense stood its ground with a three-and-out and Fornes’ big punt return had the Texans knocking on the door again.
The Texans moved the sticks once then had to settle for a field goal that Sergio Sroka hit from 35 yards away, restoring a two-possession lead that would quickly be cut to 37-34 on a 65-yard strike from Hall to Hill, who had an impressive 122 yards on five catches. Tight end Henry Norman gained 110 yards on five grabs.
Tarleton blocked the extra point to stay ahead by a field goal, and the offense used 10 plays to cover 64 yards and pad the lead. It was a run-heavy drive with Sadler scampering 49 yards on seven carries including a 14-yard TD burst. WNMU helped Tarleton along with a pass interference penalty two plays before Sadler scored to extend the lead to 44-34.
Devin Hafford appeared to put the final nail in the WNMU coffin, but his Tarleton interception was wiped out because he committed defensive holding, and the Mustangs continued to show life. Hall hit Williams in space and watched the scatty running back dart all the way to the end zone to keep WNMU alive.
The Mustangs were really alive four plays from scrimmage later, when Tarleton lined up to punt with 37 seconds on the clock. Ron Reid kicked it out of bounds at the WNMU 23, and Hall covered the first 10 yards with a quick out to Lawson.
But Hall was sacked by McDuff for a loss of 11 on the next play, then had to spike the ball to stop the clock with six seconds remaining. Hall went to Bowie, who lateraled to Hill on the final play, but McDuff made the game-ending tackle from behind for Tarleton, even knocking the ball out so that EJ Speed could recover it before sprinting to join his celebrating teammates.
Tarleton surrendered 515 yards but did break its streak of allowing four straight 100-yard rushers. The Mustangs gained 68 yards on 30 carries. Tarleton rushed for 147 yards, its most since a week three win over Angelo State, and had 450 total yards.
The road gets no easier for the Texans, who visit Eastern New Mexico at 4 p.m. (CST) next Saturday. ENMU is alone in second in the LSC, half a game behind leader Midwestern State. Tarleton and Texas A&M-Commerce are tied for third half a game behind ENMU and a full game behind Midwestern. No. 7 MSU scored twice in the final four minutes to upend No. 4 TAMUC, 26-25, in Commerce Saturday.