By BRAD KEITH
SAN ANGELO (September 16, 2017) — As Tarleton State (2-1, 1-0) trotted off the field at halftime holding a 24-17 lead over rival Angelo State (2-1, 0-1) thanks to a pair of second quarter fumble returns for touchdowns, none of the 3,139 in attendance at LeGrand Stadium would have guessed the theatrics were just beginning.
But the opportunistic Texan defense still had some more tricks up their sleeves, and needed them all Saturday to transform a Lone Star Conference opener controlled mostly by the Rams into a 30-24 Tarleton win.
Andrew Blackshire dove for one Tarleton interception with ASU on the precipice of the red zone and Trey Johnson picked off another in traffic, returning it to near the ASU five to provide the biggest highlight of his successful first career start. The picks paired with a blocked punt by EJ Speed, his firs of the season after blocking two in 2016, kept ASU off the board in the third.
The Texan offense couldn’t capitalize, failing to move the ball a single yard after the return by Johnson and the block by Speed. But Sergio Sroka came through, hitting field goals of 22 and 38 yards to send Tarleton into the fourth quarter leading 30-17.
Sroka also missed a 40-yard try in the third and made all three PAT kicks, scoring a career-high 12 points.
The defense also scored 12, all in the second quarter on fumble returns of 40 yards by Chase Varnado and 10 by Speed, who did a little of everything with eight tackles, three of them for a loss of yards and a forced fumble in addition to the fumble return and the blocked kick. Varnado made 17-7 when he capitalized on a strip sack by Tyrell Thompson, and Speed sent the Texans into halftime leading 24-17 following 10 straight points by ASU. Rotherham connected with Jaylin Judkins for a 8-yard TD and Conner Falannigan was true on a 25-yard field goal to make it 17-17, then the Ram defense forced another quick three-and-out before Speed changed the momentum – and very likely, the outcome – in the blink of an eye.
ASU had chances in the fourth quarter, but Speed and Basil Jackson denied the Rams with fourth-down stops. Jackson set a career high for the second straight week, this time making 17 tackles to go with a fumble recovery. His biggest stop came in the opening minute of the fourth when he threw down ASU receiver Tashani Bibbs after a nine yard gain to the Tarleton 25, leaving the Rams a yard short of the line to gain in the opening minute of the fourth.
Speed took over the spotlight once more four minutes later, when ASU went for it on fourth down at the Tarleton one. Rotherham tried to bully his weigh across the goal line himself, but Speed was quick to penetrate the backfield, dropping him for a two-yard loss.
The Texans remained stagnant offensively and gave the ball right back to ASU, who finally broke through. Rotherham wouldn’t be denied gain, ramming his way over the goal line for a four-yard touchdown that finally brought ASU within a single possession with seven minutes still to play.
It was one single possession, however, that he Rams would never get.
Despite gaining just six yards and 17 snaps and failing to move the sticks once on their prior five possessions, the Texan offense came through in the clutch, moving 63 yards in 12 plays, the last a kneel down by Woerner to melt away the final seconds. Tarleton faced 2nd and 26 following two penalties early in the drive, but Woerner delivered with an 18 yard pass to Savon Rollison followed with an 11 yard scramble on third and eight.
Xavier Turner rushed for seven, nine and six yards to force ASU to begin using its timeouts. It ultimately came down to a third down and six at the ASU 45, and Texan head coach Todd Whitten dialed up the perfect call. After trying unsuccessfully throughout the evening to stretch the ASU defense vertically with Jeff Thomas, the head coach called for him to show the same route, but instead curl in just past the sticks. The corner back was bailing when Thomas curled in, he was wide open. Woerner was spot on with the pass, the cornerback lunged but missed the tackle and Thomas turned it into a 30-yard gain that ended any doubt. Turner ran twice more and moved the sticks one final time before kneel down and celebration time.
I twas a celebration that seemed unlikely with ASU gaining 545 yards and Tarleton just 291. The Rams employed a hurry up offense that gave the Texans fits, often trapping them in unfavorable personnel groupings and coverages. But they moved faster than they could manage at times, which contributed to the five turnovers. It felt more like nine takeaways with ASU going just 1-4 on fourth down and having a punt blocked.
The Texans gave the ball away just once on the first Woerner interception of he season. He was 14-28 for 208 yards and moved no closer to the school record for career touchdown passes. He has 55 and is chasing the mark of 57 set from 2007-09 by Scott Grantham. Tarleton rushed for just 83 yards, partially because Woerner finihsed with -21 after being sacked five times, one shy of a career high. Adam Berryman scored the game’s first points on an 11-yard TD run, but like the rest of the offense, he seemed disappear after that.
The Texans had 157 yards on 19 plays in the first quarter and 63 yards on 12 snaps while eating away the final seven minutes of the game. But it was ugly in between as they moved only 71 yards in 41 plays over the course the second and third quarters and the opening eight minutes of the fourth.
If there was an unsung hero in the game for Tarleton it was punter and holder Ron Reid. No doubt one of the biggest players nationwide at each of those positions, Reid pulled down high snaps and got the ball teed up in time for Sroka to do his thing, and that’s when he wasn’t busy averaging 49.1 yards per punt. He punted eight times, five of them for 50 or more yards including a long of 60, and one being downed inside the 20.
Rotherham was 20-34 for 249 yards and a touchdown for ASU, while Jake Faber, the ASU starter, was 10-23 for 111 yards while tossing the two interceptions. Stevens was the most consistent star for ASU, slicing through the Texans for 169 yards and a TD on 23 carries.
Whitten interview and highlight video below courtesy Tarleton Sports Network and Tarleton Athletic Communications: