By BRAD KEITH
PORTALES (October 15, 2016) — Tarleton State (4-3, 4-1) forced five turnovers and Zed Woerner tossed three touchdown passes to Del’Michael High and Jeff Thomas in a key 26-16 Lone Star Conference road victory over Eastern New Mexico (4-3, 4-2) at Greyhound Stadium Saturday.
High and Thomas took advantage of mismatches against smaller ENMU cornerbacks throughout the battle, which ended with Tarleton State winning three straight for the first time since 2014. The junior receivers combined for 17 catches and 269 yards, with Thomas grabbing nine balls for 144 yards and High reeling in eight for 125.
It was the first time two receivers have gone over 100 yards in multiple games in a season for Tarleton since Devin Guinn and Jahmeel Hobson did it multiple times in 2009. Thomas and senior slot receiver Bubba Tandy each topped 100 yards earlier this season at West Texas A&M.
Woerner finished 29-47 for 343 yards despite being picked off twice and taking punishment in the form of 11 quarterback hurries and five sacks. Over the last four games, Woerner is 99-143 passing for 1,248 yards and 14 TDs.
“Zed did really well, made some really good throws. I couldn’t be more proud of Zed and our entire football team,” said Tarleton head coach Todd Whitten. “Coming here on the road against a good Eastern New Mexico team, I’m sure we were underdogs by quite a margin.”
With Tarleton unable to mount any kind of rushing attack – 25 carries for 18 yards – Woerner relied on formations and play calls that isolated the Greyhound corners against his talented outside receivers.
It worked beautifully most of the time, beginning with a 13-yard strike to Thomas – he out-jumped a defender and lost his helmet while making the catch – to begin the scoring, followed by a leaping reception in the end zone over two defenders by High on fourth-and-long that put the Texans ahead 13-7.
They would never trail again.
Bailey Hale connected on a 32-yard field goal to pull ENMU within 13-10 at the half, but the Tarleton defense was at its best in the third quarter, forcing two turnovers and a punt that traveled just 15 yards.
The Texan offense scored just three points on a 20-yard Sergio Sroka field goal on its first two third-quarter appearances in the red zone – Woerner was picked off targeting High in the end zone on the other – but took full advantage following an EJ Speed fumble recovery with a one-play 12-yard TD from Woerner to High for a 23-10 lead.
Sroka cashed in a 44-yard field goal with 29 seconds left in the third that was set up by the short ENMU punt, and Tarleton took a 26-10 advantage into the fourth.
ENMU used a perfectly set up screen with two linemen in front to spring big receiver Aaron Johnson for an 80 yard touchdown that trimmed it to 26-16, but the Texans pressured the two-point conversion attempt and the pass fell incomplete to preserve a two possession lead.
Johnson led all receivers with 195 yards on seven catches, helping the Hounds to 538 total yards of offense despite generating less than 20 points for only the second time this season.
ENMU attempted an onside kick, but it one-hopped right to running back Joseph Sadler.
The Texans were unable to move the ball because of its run-blocking troubles, but even after a short punt, the defense rose to the occasion once more.
The Greyhounds tried some trickery with a flea flicker, but Tarleton wasn’t fooled, surrounding the receiver – Johnson – with three defensive backs. Treston Ridge intercepted the jump ball, his second pick of the game, to basically clinch the win.
Ridge became the first Tarleton defender with multiple interceptions in a game since Charles Moore – now an assistant coach for the Texans – picked off three passes at McMurry in 2014.
Tarleton failed to move the sticks on its ensuing possession, but after punting, ENMU had just 47 seconds remaining. Strand tossed three straight incompletions, two of them largely because of back-to-back hurries by defensive tackle David Solomon. The last didn’t matter because of an offensive hold, but on 3rd and 20, a pass to Johnny Smith went for no gain thanks to a quick tackle by Solomon and Devin Hafford.
Strand rushed for 40 yards on 4th and 20, but time expired during the play and Tarleton managed to run him out of bounds at the 10.
The Texans have a winning record for the first time in just less than two years and enter the tough closing stretch of their regular season schedule still in contention for at least a share of the LSC title, which they have shared three times but never won outright.
The turnaround in the first season since the return Whitten continues to move ahead of schedule, thanks largely to a defense that despite surrendering more than 500 yards for the fourth time this year kept ENMU out of its comfort zone by limiting big plays with the triple option and misdirection run game.
“We have players who are buying in and playing and coming to work every day and having fun along the way,” said Whitten. “We have a lotos really good players.”
Like senior linebacker Cody Burtscher, who made 14 tackles and a fumble recovery, giving him 82 tackles for the season. He already had three interceptions entering the game. As a team, Tarleton already has 19 defensive takeaways after forcing just nine turnovers all of last season.
Basil Jackson made 11 stops and Hafford had 10. Treston Ridge added nine tackles to his pair of takeaways, and Azizullah Fafita filled in at middle linebacker – freshman Ronnell Wilson was out with his second concussion – and also made nine tackles.
ENMU was forced to go to the air for much of the second half, and Strand passed for a season-high 265 yards, going 12-19 with a touchdown and the two picks. Chivasiay Gallagher rushed for 76 yards and Strand added 39 on the ground as the Hounds also rushed for 242 yards.
Tarleton spoiled ENMU’s homecoming festivities and now returns to Stephenville for its own homecoming game against an equally improved Texas A&M-Kingsville team. Kickoff Saturday at Memorial Stadium is set for 6 p.m.