NACOGDOCHES – Even though Tarleton was playing on the road against Stephen F. Austin, a Division I opponent, the No. 7-ranked Texans fully expected to leave Homer Bryce Stadium with a victory in their season opener.
Not only did the Texans win – they won convincingly, 37-26, by putting up a school record 667 yards of offense and holding the Lumberjacks to only six points in the second half for a double-digit road victory. The Texans surpassed the old offensive record by two yards, which was 665 yards against Texas A&M-Commerce in 2014 and were coached by current SFA head coach Colby Carthel.
For head coach Todd Whitten – an SFA alum and former Lumberjack quarterback – it was even sweeter as the 10th-year Texan head coach improves to 5-1 all-time against his alma mater.
“This was a really big win for our program – something some would call a signature win,” said Whitten. “To be on the road while playing up a level and to get a win with so many mistakes, I couldn’t be more proud of our guys for the way they fought for four quarters. It was a really, really good win for our football team.”
Daniel McCants scored the first two touchdowns of the game and both were highlight-worthy runs. The senior running back bolted up the middle on the second play of the game for a 48-yard touchdown run. Later in the first quarter, McCants lined up at the back of the end zone as the Texans started at their own one. McCants found a hole once again and tied an NCAA record with a 99-yard touchdown run and a 14-7 first-quarter Texan lead. McCants finished with a game-leading 179 yards – two yards off a career high – on only 11 carries and two scores.
It wasn’t just McCants who busted out the highlight plays for the Texan offense. With 30 seconds left in the first half and the Texans trailing 20-14, senior quarterback Ben Holmes launched a deep ball down the sideline to J.F. Thomas, who outjumped the SFA defender and walked into the end zone for a 63-yard touchdown and gave the Texans a 21-20 halftime lead.
“We’re a big-play offense,” Whitten added. “We always take shots and go after folks. We’re going to run the ball vertical and take shots down the field. Tonight was one of our better offensive outings.”
SFA opened the second half with a 29-yard field goal to regain the lead at 23-21. It was the fourth field goal of the game for the Lumberjacks, who managed only two touchdowns – both in the first half. More importantly, it was the last time SFA would have the lead.
Holmes scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 5-yard run that put Tarleton up 27-23 midway through the third quarter. Holmes had his best statistical game as a Texan with the senior throwing for a career-high 372 yards on 23-of-36 passing with three total touchdowns and no turnovers.
Holmes and Thomas weren’t done yet as the duo put the finishing touches on a dominating performance with a 37-yard touchdown pass to open the fourth quarter that gave the Texans a 34-26 lead. Christian Hernandez converted on his first collegiate field goal – a 27-yarder – for a double-digit lead and the game’s final points.
Thomas joined McCants and Holmes with a career game as the junior wide-out hauled in a personal-best 193 yards on seven receptions and two touchdowns. Preseason All-American wide receiver Zimari Manning posted four receptions for 84 yards.
While the offense was the story, the defense controlled the game in the second half. SFA had 253 yards on offense in the first half as the two teams went back and forth on offense. The Texan defense held the Lumberjacks to just 161 yards of offense in the second half. Although there weren’t any turnovers in the game by either team, the Texans applied the pressure on SFA quarterback Trae Self. Ronnell Wilson led the game with 10 tackles and Tank Morgan followed with eight in his first game as a Texan.
The Texans didn’t have a sack in the first half, but that changed when the game got to closing time. Tavaris Owens, B.J. Jefferson, and Jordan Wells each had a fourth-quarter sack that was in SFA territory and prevent a comeback bid.
No. 7 Tarleton will return to Stephenville for the home opener in the newly-renovated Lonn Reisman Athletic Center at Memorial Stadium and take on Doane University on Saturday, Sept. 14 at 6 p.m.
“I’m thankful we could get a win tonight for Dr. Hurley in his first game as Tarleton president,” Whitten said. “We talked about that as a team this week and we wanted to welcome the Hurley family to Tarleton with a win. It’s going to be emotional to go back home and play in coach Lonn Reisman’s new stadium with his name on it. There’s even more incentive for us as coaches and a program to go home and play really well in our new stadium.”