Facing fourth-down-and-five at the Midwestern State eight and trailing 10-7 early in the third quarter, Tarleton State head coach Cary Fowler says he never hesitated to go for it.
Offensive coordinator Justin Carrigan called the play, and quarterback Jake Fenske threw a jump ball to redshirt freshman Bubba Tandy, who hauled in quite the catch over two Mustang defenders in the end zone.
Tarleton never trailed again, upsetting Midwestern in a season opener for the second straight year, this time 27-24 in the Lone Star Football Festival at AT&T Stadium Saturday.
The Texans were 4-for-4 on fourth downs, with three of them keeping alive touchdown drives.
"With us, it's how we practice so it's how we play," said Fowler. "I'm not just going to go crazy and go for it on fourth-and-10 from our own end of the field in the middle of the game, but we practice getting to the line and executing a play on fourth down just like it's first down. It paid off for us."
It's all part of the tempo that drives the Texans. The tempo that led to 80 snaps Saturday, matching Tarleton's average from last year.
"We're trying to figure out how to get 90," he said. "It wares defenses out. At the end of our scoring drives, I feel like we had Midwestern gasping for air a bit because of our tempo."
In practice, Fowler says the Texans go for every fourth down they face.
"We don't even slow down. They get to the ball just like its first or second or third down and we get the play in and run it at our normal fast tempo," he said. "Then, I re-play the down and kick it so we work on those scenarios, too. I don't know that one of our guys on the field even looked up to see that it was fourth down Saturday."
Zach Henshaw rushed for three yards on fourth-and-one at the Midwestern 28 on Tarleton's first scoring drive, and four plays later quarterback Aaron Doyle scored on a two-yard run to get the Texans on the board and cut their deficit to 10-7 late in the first half.
The touchdown from Fenske to Tandy ended the opening drive of the second half with Tarleton on top to stay. Fenske converted a fourth-and-one with a sneak on the next drive, and the Texans scored five plays later for a 21-10 lead.
Fowler said he even considered going for it on fourth down at the Midwestern 24 in the closing minutes, but decided to kick a field goal and it was blocked.
"It was fourth-and-12 there. If it was fourth-and-five, I probably would have said go for it," Fowler said. "Either way, we would have had them back on their side of the field, and if we get it, the game's over.
"How many times do you see teams go to the four-minute drill where they're conservative and trying to run time off the clock and it gets them beat?" he asked rhetorically. "Rarely does a team with a late lead stay aggressive and lose."
In 33 games under Fowler, Tarleton is 32-of-59 trying to convert on fourth down. He said there is no magic recipe for success.
"It's a gut feeling, and I get it early," he said. "It's the great Tarleton crowd and the atmosphere they bring and the way we feed off that, it's our tempo and how worn down the defense is, and it's how confident we are in the way we are executing our offense. On Saturday, I was confident we were going to be successful every time we went for it."
And they weren't last second calls, with players and assistants all looking at the head coach waiting for his decision.
"I tell (offensive coordinator Justin Carrigan) as the series is going and as we're moving the ball down the field, 'Hey, you have four downs.' So he knows, he's ready for it, and because we practice that way, none of our players are surprised by it. We work to make it just another down."
But on Saturday it wasn't just another down. It was the one that ignited three touchdown drives and a second straight season-opening victory.
"Really, with this group, it started in the fourth quarter at North Alabama last year," Fowler said. "We have a lot of guys on this team who made that trip, and they all remember when we could have kicked a field goal on fourth down and instead we threw the ball (from Fenske to Arthur Buckingham) and won the game. Ever since then, these kids believe when it's fourth down. They believe we can get the first down, and they believe we'll score. If not on that play, then later in the drive because of that play."
-Tarleton received 54 votes in the American Football Coaches Association poll, released Monday. The Texans received just one vote last week. Midwestern fell from No. 13 to No. 25.
-All-American cornerback Dashaun Phillips is getting numerous looks from NFL scouts, Fowler says, but he was one of two Texans to leave Saurday's game with a concussion. Defensive end Jake Blount was the other. Fowler said the status for both is day-to-day, but expects they will return for Saturday's game at Angelo State.
-Defensive end and long snapper Patrick Bettiol suffered two broken fingers Saturday, and Fowler said that was the reason for bad snaps on Talreton's final extra point and field goal attempts. Bettiol is expected to play Saturday, and Fowler says if he cannot long snap the replacement will likely be offensive lineman Stephen Arbuckle or tight end Will McLain.
-The game at ASU Saturday begins at 7 p.m. at San Angelo Stadium.