WICHITA FALLS – Todd Whitten has done it again.
In 1996, Whitten made his Tarleton debut and led the Texans to more NCAA wins in that season than they had in their two years prior. In 2000, he came back and turned Tarleton into an NCAA playoff team in just the second year of his newest stint.
In December 2015, Whitten came home to Stephenville with the intent of bringing the Lone Star Conference Championship back to Tarleton State University.
Saturday night, he and the Texans delivered by beating No. 10 MSU Texas 35-34 on the road in overtime to spoil the Mustangs’ homecoming.
“Wow,” said Whitten following an emotional overtime victory in Wichita Falls. “This is one of the best victories I’ve ever been a part of. Both teams played their hearts out. Both teams deserved to win, but I’m very thankful that we came out on top. Our kids have been working really hard and they really deserve the success they’re having.”
The Tarleton Texans won the Lone Star Conference Football Champions for the fourth time in school history and have a chance to join the 2001 team as the only teams to win the trophy outright when Tarleton hosts Western New Mexico on Saturday, November 10 at 2 p.m. in Stephenville. Tarleton won co-championships in 2009 and 2013 to go along with divisional titles in 2002, 2003, and 2006.
The win also ties the 2007 team for the second-best undefeated start in program history at 8-0. Only the 1990 Tarleton football had a longer unbeaten start (11-0).
In a battle of two of the nation’s top offenses, the defenses held each other in check through the opening three quarters.
MSU Texas struck first before Tarleton’s Xavier Turner punched in a one-yard touchdown run and Joanly Martinez put the extra point through to tie things up at 7-7. For Turner, it marked his fifth straight game with a touchdown, including seven in the last three games.
That score would hold up through the opening quarter before Ben Holmes connected with Baxter Kirven to open things up in the second. Holmes hit Kirven with an eight-yard slant for the touchdown to put Tarleton up 13-7. MSU Texas had an answer, however, as the Mustangs tacked on two more field goals before the half to take a 21-13 lead into halftime.
In the third quarter, QB Ben Holmes provided all the scoring of the period when he leaped over a Mustang defender at the goal line to bring Tarleton within one at 21-20. Holmes finished the game with 34 yards on the ground and 133 through the air with two throwing touchdowns and this one on the ground.
“I thought our quarterback played really gutsy. He has his own style, but he’s as good as any quarterback in the country,” said Whitten. “We feel very blessed to walk away with this win.”
Adam Berryman bowled his way through the Mustang defense with just over nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter for a three-yard touchdown run. Then Holmes connected with Kirven again to complete the two-point conversion and give the Texans a 28-21 lead.
While the defenses kept the game right there through the remainder of regulation, the teams prepared for their second straight overtime meeting – just 11 days shy of the one-year mark from last year’s overtime meeting in Wichita Falls.
MSU Texas won the coin flip and chose to defend first in the overtime period, but on the second play of the extra frame, J.F. Thomas won the jump ball in the corner of the end zone for a Tarleton touchdown. Martinez was good on the PAT to put the Texans up 35-28.
The Mustangs answered after seven plays but couldn’t handle the snap on the point after and Tarleton made the tackle to end the game and secure the league title.
“There’s no question (this is one of the best wins of my career) and this is one of the best teams I’ve been a part of, maybe the best,” said Whitten. “Who knows what these guys can accomplish?”
Turner boasted a career-high rushing performance as the senior became the first Texan to rush for over 200 yards since Roderick Smith ran for 204 against East Central on Sept. 12, 2009. Turner ran for 214 yards, which is the fifth most in Tarleton history for single game, on 38 carries with a touchdown. It is the 11th 200-yard rushing performance in school history.
Defensively, Tarleton was led by Jai Edwards.
The junior safety had 13 tackles, including 11 solo, and had a timely interception to set up Berryman’s go-ahead touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Prince Robinson also had the task of guarding the league’s leading receiver, Juwan Johnson, and made seven tackles – all solo – to go along with seven pass breakups.
Tarleton will be back home in Stephenville for the final two games of the regular season. The Texans will take a break from LSC play to host Lincoln (Mo.) Saturday at 2 p.m. and then close out the regular season against Western New Mexico on Nov. 10 at 2 p.m.