By BRAD KEITH
CLEVELAND, Miss. (September 2, 2017) — For just more than half a quarter, Tarleton State looked like the Todd Whitten teams of last decade, those from 2001-04 that controlled the clock with physical running games and efficient passing attacks once the run was established.
But those teams finished drives, something the 2017 Texans (0-1) could not do to open the season Saturday, when Delta State (1-0) built a 31-point lead on its way to a 34-16 win at Mickey Sellers Stadium.
Tarleton will try to bounce back in its home opener at Memorial Stadium next Saturday, September 9. Kickoff against Oklahoma Panhandle State is set for 7 p.m.
Looking to finish off an almost eight minute drive to open the season, Derek Kiser under threw a pass to Del’Michael High, who ran a corner-fade pattern. The floater was intercepted by Devontae Wilson, who instead of kneeling the ball in the back of the end zone, side-stepped a couple defenders then outran everyone else down the sideline to equal the longest coring play in the history of the sport.
Wlson’s memorable return set the tempo for Delta State, which had at least as many game-changing transfers as Tarleton was excited about entering the season, as well as a returning running back who led the nation in scoring with 24 touchdowns in 2016.
Chris Robinson scored one quarrier and one second after Wilson’s pick 6, banging his way in format he five-yard line for a 13-0 Delta State lead 7:21 before the half.
Wilson made another big play on the ensuing drive, one that won’t go in the state book. Beat by Jeff Thomas, Wilson grabbed ahold of the Texan receiver and took the penalty instead of allowing Thomas to run free for what would have likely have been an easy TD.
The Texans settled for a 30-yard Sergio Sroka field goal on that drive, and with Wilson having swung likely 13, perhaps as many as 18 points (it could have been 14-6 Tarleton) the way of the Statesmen, they led 13-3.
DSU took a 20-3 lead into the locker room following a 4-yard LaDarian Peterson TD run, set up by a 50-50 ball on a lob from QB Breck Ruddick that Leon Green never took his eyes off of and that Tarleton cornerback Burrell Jackson never saw. Green hauled it in and gained 44 yards to convert a third down and reach Tarleton territory.
Ruddick was just warming up, hitting Marquis Carter and Green for second half touchdowns of 27 and 11 yards to seal the Deltat State win with a 34-3 lead with 11:58 remaining. The Green TD was set up by a muffed punt lost by Tarleton return specialist Daniel McCants, who also subbed in at running back.
“First off, number one, I think Delta has a very good football team and I think their quarterback did a good job,” said Whitten. “That 100-yard interception return and then we fumble a punt, that can’t happen. That’s 14 easy points we give them or it’s a different ball game.
“We have the chance to have a good football team,” he added. “I’d have to go back and look at the film to see what positive things we can take out of this, but I know we made too many mistakes and we didn’t have any big plays. That was probably the difference in the game.”
Robinson, considered a Harlon Hill contender after leading the nation in scoring last season, rushed for 106 yards and had added 32 through the air. Ruddick was 11-16 for 151 yards passing and rushed for 69 yards.
Kiser was 19-35 passing for Tarleton, but threw two interceptions on his way to 201 yards. Thomas hauled in nine catches for 124 yards and Xavier Turner rushed 13 times for 53 yards.
Tarleton made it more respectable when Zed Woerner replaced Kiser at quarterback and tossed TD passes of 22 yards to Savon Rollison and 30 to Thomas. The latter moved Woerner past Steve Kelly (1999-2001) into second in school history with 52 career touchdown passes.
Whitten said early in preseason camp that it was hard to evaluate Woerner last season, because he was constantly pressured – and sacked 30-plus times – thanks to a slew of injuries that desolated an already undersized offensive line.
Whether Woerner will now be the starter is a question Whitten has had to answer since he came back to Stephenville in december, 2015 for his third go-round as head coach of the Texans.
It’s also a question Woerner has been trying to answer himself since he was a freshman. In his first career start on November 8, 2014, he set Tarleton single-game records for completions (41) and yards passing (470) in a loss at Texas A&M-Commerce. He completed 40 passes on Hallween Night (October 31) of 2015, despite seeing an early lead turn into a blowout loss at Angelo State. The Marble Falls product also set a school mark with 64 pass attempts in that game.
Past head coach Cary Fowler named Woerner the starer with no debate in 2015 after that record-setting start and another strong performance by Woerner to end the 2014 season. He then beat out Kiser in spring ball in 2016 before Kiser moved head of Woerner this past spring and was ultimately named the starter in what Whitten dubbed a game-time decision, though Kiser worked with the first-team offense and Woerner did not earlier this week.
Woerner was 4-8 for 57 yards and two scores at DSU, inching him closer to a number of Tarleton career passing records. Here’s a look:
Category Tarleton Career Record (Holder) Woerner Difference
Completions 622 (Steve Kelly, 1999-01) 493 129
Attempts 1,136 (Kelly) 784 352
Pass Yards 8,203 (Kelly) 5,834 2,379
Pass TDs 57 (Scott Grantham, 2007-09) 2 5