By BRAD KEITH
SAN ANGELO (September 16, 2017) — It was Chase Varnado, then it was EJ Speed, and finally, it was very nearly Tre Johnson.
Tarleton State scored on fumble returns of 40 yards by Varnado, the Stephenville product who has delivered so many times for the Yellow Jackets and Texans through the years, and 10 yards by Speed, one of the best raw athletes you will find in NCAA Division II. Together, their scores in the second quarter kept Tarleton in front, 24-17, at the half, despite the offense producing negative eight yards in the second quarter after a near perfect opening stanza in which the Texans jumped ahead 10-0.
But every time it appeared Angelo State was going to get over the hump, Tarleton made a play. The Rams, with their hurry up version of even a hurry up offense, amassed 545 yards, but Andrew Blackshire snared an interception when the Rams were in the Texan red zone in the third, and then Tre Johnson, marvelous in his first start at cornerback picked one off and took it back to the Rams’ five.
The Tarleton offense still could not move the ball, gaining no yards in four play before a Sergio Sroka field goal, and then repeating that after Speed added a blocked kick to his big night. Add a four-down stop at the three-yard line early in the fourth, and it really was the defense carrying the offense all night at LeGrand Stadium.
But then, with five minutes left after not gaining a single first down on their last five possessions, the offense delivered. Xavier Turner suddenly looked like a bowling ball, the offensive line was driving people back again, and on a game-ending third-down and 6, a beleaguered Zed Woerner, who was sacked six times, laced a curl route that hit Jeff Thomas right in the chest as the two seniors set up the finishing sequence of Turner carries for one final first down before Woerner executed the best play in football, taking a knee to run out the clock.
The offense had its moments, but all-in-all struggled mightily. The special teams was good, but the defense, even while allowing those 545 yards, was more opportunistic than ever imaginable, and that’s why Tarleton won the game – because Bail Jackson made a career-best 17 tackles and forced one of those fumbles, and because of interceptions by Blackshire and Johnson, and of course, the returns by Varnado and Speed.
Those returns have the Texans returning to Stephenville a happy bunch who are 2-1 overall and 1-0 in LSC play.
A happy bunch that still has plenty to correct before West Texas A&M comes knocking at 7 p.m. next Saturday.
It will take more than defense most weeks. But tonight, a defense that at times even got offensive itself, was enough to survive, and in the end to thrive, and take home a most unlikely victory.