By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (October 16, 2016) — I said Tarleton State would have to be better Saturday, and the Texans certainly were.
The Texans forced five turnovers and Zed Woerner scorched Eastern New Mexico through the air in a 26-16 win in Portales, New Mexico Saturday.
Tarleton has won three straight for the first time since 2014 and is tied alongside Texas A&M-Commerce for second in the Lone Star Conference. They are half a game behind Midwestern State.
The Texans won because Zed Woerner stayed hot, exposing major mismatches in favor of his receivers over ENMU cornerbacks, and because of the turnovers forced by the Texan defense that included Treston Ridge picking off a pair of passes to become the first Texan with multiple interceptions in a game since Charles Moore at McMurry in 2014.
A lot went right for the Texans, despite their continued inability to mount much – or any, in Saturday’s case – of a rushing attack, and despite Woerner being battered by ENMU pass rushers who were able to pin their ears back and go.
Tarleton will still have to be better in many ways to keep winning over its final four games, three of them against Texas A&M-Kingsville, Midwestern and A&M-Commerce. The latter two are ranked in the top 10 and are Tarleton’s opponents back-to-back to end the regular season.
Here are my outtakes from Saturday’s win over the Hounds:
FOUR FULL QUARTERS: Tarleton faced adversity in all four quarters Saturday, but overcame each obstacle along the way, trailing only briefly, 7-6, in the first half, and stretching the lead out over the third quarter. The offense struggled while running out the clock in the fourth, but the valiant defensive effort continued, even after ENMU score on an 80-yard screen pass to Aaron Johnson. The next play may have quietly been the most important of the game. The Greyhounds went for a two-point conversion to try and cut their deficit to eight – one possession – which would have allowed them to change their pace and continue to run the ball in the final minutes. But Tarleton got pressure on quarterback Wyatt Strand, and his late delivery on the run was nowhere close to a receiver. The Texans still led by 10, and Treston Ridge pretty much clinched it with his second interception moments later.
SPEAKING OF INTERCEPTIONS: The Texans already have more than twice as many defensive takeaways in seven games this season than they did in all 10 in 2015. Tarleton has forced 19 turnovers compared to just nine this year, and are +9 in turnover differential on the season. It certainly made a big difference Saturday, especially in the third quarter, when ENMU lost two fumbles and Tarleton outscored the Greyhounds 13-0 in the period. Ridge recorded the first two interceptions of his senior season to lead the way defensively.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR CANDIDATE?: I can’t be the only one who feels linebacker Cody Burtscher deserves serious consideration for LSC Defensive Player of the Year. Okay, I know I’m not the only one, because I’ve conversed about such with people in the know. Burtscher had 14 tackles and a forced fumble Saturday. On the year, he leads the LSC with 82 total tackles, is tied for the league lead with three interceptions and is tied for fourth in the conference with 4.5 sacks. There are big games remaining over the back end of the schedule, so Burtscher – and, of course, others in the conversation – has other opportunities ahead to shine.
WOERNER IS (STILL) DEALING: If Zed Woerner was a tie-down roper, local rodeo followers would say he’s on a “heater.” But this is becoming more than just a streak. He’s a good quarterback, with great receivers helping him out with terrific catches against overmatched defensive backs. More on those receivers in a moment. Woerner, over the last four games dating back to his impressive performance despite a loss at West Texas A&M, is 99-143 (69.2 percent) for 1,248 yards and 14 touchdowns. I’ll break it down for you. That’s an average of about 25-36 for 312 yards and 3.5 touchdowns per game. And more impressive than his numbers is how he’s doing it. Saturday he stood in the pocket bravely and delivered strikes in the face of heavy pressure – five sacks and 11 QB hurries – from the Greyhounds. And remember, on most Saturdays he has no running game – more on that below, too – to help keep defenses honest. ENMU defenders had to feel like Woerner was the bad guy in a horror movie. No matter how successful their attack, he just kept coming back for more. And more.
MATCHUP NIGHTMARES: If Tarleton just had Jeff Thomas, or just Del’Michael High, or even just veteran senior Bubba Tandy, teams could roll coverages to one side, put safeties over the top, any number of things to limit that individual. But Tarleton has all three, and that has defenses in a bind, especially when successfully pressuring Zed Woerner seems to do little to phase him. Jeff Thomas is a Sam Houston State transfer who abused a smaller cornerback to the tune of 9-144 and a TD receiving Saturday. The touchdown catch was phenomenal, as he out-leaped a defender in the end zone, and even had his helmet knocked off while hauling it in. High may be his equal on the opposite side, assaulting the other ENMU corner for 8-125 and two scores. He had (another) leaping TD catch as well. Oh yeah, Tandy is good, too, and can’t be adequately covered by linebackers, putting defenses in a bind when it comes to deciding how to deploy the coverage of its safeties. Add tight end Brant Bailey to the mix, and you have a dangerous scenario brewing from anywhere on the field, at any time in the game.
NO RUN GAME: Sure, the Texans have opened enough space for Joseph Sadler to rush for 100-plus yards three times, but not against opponents currently in the top tier of the LSC. He had two yards and lost two fumbles against West Texas A&M, and 13 rushing yards at ENMU. That’s not his fault, as the inexperienced and oft-injured offensive line in front of him has struggled throughout the year. In his halftime radio interview Saturday, Todd Whitten said it himself. After praising Woerner and the passing game, he said ‘We can’t run the ball so….” and his voice trailed off, the interview ending there.
WHEN STATS TELL LIES: Film doesn’t lie, but stats sometimes do. Yes, Eastern New Mexico had 538 yards Saturday. They were 538 of the least effective yards I have seen in a game this season, at any level. When a team racks up 538 yards, I’m expecting them to score 35 points, if not more. While Tarleton turned 361 yards into 26 points, ENMU turned its 538 into just 16. It was the second-lowest scoring output this season by the Greyhounds, who missed Kamal Cass at running back but also ran into a well-prepared Tarleton defense that limited its option-based ground strike offense and forced the Hounds to amass their total yardage in uncomfortable ways – by having to throw the ball downfield. That’s not how they draw it up in Portales, and it showed, with Strand tossing up a couple relatively easy picks to Texan safety Treston Ridge, who may have done enough – he also made nine tackles – to earn LSC Defensive Player of the Week honors. We’ll learn the winner of that award on Monday.
A LOOK AHEAD: Myles Carr is coming to town, and that means it’s time to dial up the Texan pass rush that has produced 26 sacks this year after making only 18 sacks all of 2015. The Javelinas have weapons, enough to have come within two points of both A&M-Commerce and Midwestern in back-to-back games. Throw that 2-3 conference mark the Javelinas own out the window, because while Tarleton has a backloaded schedule that will ultimately determine their level of success this season, A&M-Kingsville had a front-loaded LSC slate with games they should win in upcoming weeks. It will be homecoming at Tarleton next Saturday, and kickoff at Memorial Stadium is slated for 6 p.m.