By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (November 6, 2016) — Tarleton State won’t be winning a Lone Star Conference championship in the first year back on campus for head coach Todd Whitten, as a number of close calls are all that has held the Texans back from playing for that title next week at Texas A&M-Commerce.
A small number, actually. Like five, maybe six plays that have made the difference in Tarleton being 5-4 overall and 5-3 in conference play instead of possibly 8-1 and 7-1, respectively.
Tarleton wasn’t going to beat Division I McNeese State (La.) in the season opener, but since then, the Texans have lost four games by a total of 24 points. I’ll save you the math, however easy it is – it’s six points per game.
Whitten has said numerous times his team must finish better, and that indeed has been one of the primary problems with Tarleton losing second half leads in its other non-conference bout against Southwest Baptist (Mo.), and in conference losses to Texas A&M-Kingsville and Midwestern State.
Tarleton led A&M-Kingsville 17-0 at halftime of a 21-17 loss, and on Saturday led MSU 10-3 at the half, and 16-15 after re-taking the lead on a touchdown pass with 2:06 to play, before ultimately losing, 21-16.
So what has kept Tarleton from winning games like the one Saturday against MSU, and what are the Texans doing right to be in these games, some against nationally ranked opponents? Below are my outtakes from the latest narrow loss by the Texans.
1. STRONG FIRST HALVES DEFENSIVELY: Tarleton has had a chance in these games because of its defense, especially in the first half. The Texans pitched a first-half shutout against an A&M-Kingsville club that entered that game averaging 42 points per game, and yielded just a field goal in the first half against the No. 12 Mustangs, who entered last night’s contest scoring 38 points per game. In fact, dating back to last season when he directed the defense at Colorado Mesa, Tarleton defensive coordinator Marcus Patton has held MSU to its lowest two scoring totals of the last two years.
2. TAKEAWAYS AND GIVEAWAYS: Takeaways have given Tarleton chances to upset teams, like five in a 26-16 road win at Eastern New Mexico, and giveaways have prevented Tarleton from having a chance to win others – ie., the early lost fumble that helped West Texas A&M to a 14-0 start en rout to a 37-25 win over the Texans, and against MSU a strip sack that helped the Mustangs take a 15-10 lead late in the third quarter and an interception that sealed their win over the Texans in the final seconds. Turnover margin has been a positive for Tarleton much of the way in 2016, Tarleton has 30 takeaways and 16 giveaways, but, as mentioned, some of the giveaways have been painful.
3. STILL STRUGGLING UP FRONT: A 70-yard gallop by Jabari Anderson helped Tarleton to 118 rushing yards in the first half Saturday, but one run does not a season make, and it’s been a season of struggles along the offensively line, due to both inexperience and injuries. Tarleton allowed five sacks Saturday to a unit that was averaging less than 2.5 per game. On the season, the Texan quarterbacks have been sacked 38 times, or almost four times per game. That included sacks to end each of their opening two drives of the fourth quarter against MSU. They were sacked nine times by A&M-Kingsville two weeks prior.
4. MISSED OPPORTUNITIES (AND PENALTIES): Tarleton can’t be blamed for not scoring on one near miss Saturday. Photos show Del’Michael High clearly interfered with as he gained separation from his defender on what should have been a touchdown pass. Instead, the Texans miss a 46-yard field goal. They later missed a 45-yard kick after Derek Kiser overthrew High by just inches over the middle of the field, and the junior receiver may very well have scored on that play, too. The Texans are good enough to stay in games against the top tier teams in the conference, but can’t beat them by leaving points out on the field.