The Tarleton State University football squad not only blew up the preseason predictions, rolling through the regular season undefeated for the first time — but the Texans will be entering their first-round NCAA Division II playoff game ranked as high as they have ever been.
After crushing Western New Mexico 58-0 on Saturday in the regular-season finale at home, the Texans (10-0, 9-0 in the Lone Star Conference) moved up one spot in this week’s AFCA national rankings from seventh to No. 6.
On Sunday, the Texans were awarded the No. 2 seed in the Super Region 4 rankings, and learned that they will host their first-round playoff game at 1 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium against seventh-seeded Azusa Pacific. Tickets for that playoff game are $10, and can be purchased online (https://www.ticketracker.com/store/events/239).
TSU has never before hosted an NCAA football playoff game.
The Texans had been picked to finish fifth in the preseason Lone Star Conference prognostications.
“Our guys have proven they could beat anybody on their schedule,” head coach Todd Whitten said Monday morning, adding that they have to continue the same path “with preparation and being focused.”
This marks the fourth NCAA playoff appearance for TSU’s football program, and third under Whitten. The Texans’ last playoff berth was in 2009.
Azusa Pacific is 8-1 on the season, and was 7-1 in the Great Northwest American Conference.
“(The Texans) have accomplished a great deal already,” Whitten said. “Being the outright conference champion was definitely a chore. I couldn’t be prouder of them and the way they’ve responded.”
Whitten led TSU to its first national ranking in 2001, and took them as high as No. 6 in the nation during the 2002 season. This marks the 18th week in program history that the Texans have been in the national top 10, and 13 of those were under Whitten.
Whitten said at least part of the Texans’ remarkable success comes from the fact that they are simply a team that practices well, and really likes playing football.
Whitten had hinted in the preseason that the running game would be a key to the 2018 campaign. But no one could have predicted that the Texans would average 316 yards rushing per game — second in the nation only behind two triple-option teams. Led by running back Xavier Turner, they have gained an average of 5.9 yards per run.
“I didn’t probably see that coming,” Whitten said. “Our offensive line and tight ends have done a great job.”
Turner has 1,100 yards and 18 touchdowns rushing so far. Contributions from running backs Daniel McCants (869 yards, six touchdowns), Adam Berryman (474 yards, six TDs) and D’Anthony Hopkins (248 yards, three TDs) have also made the ground game a major force.
The Texans entered the season with a certain amount of uncertainty at quarterback, with newcomer Ben Holmes and returnee Derek Kiser battling for the starting spot.
Holmes earned the starting spot, and has thrown for 2,031 yards while completing 132 of 219 passes for 60 percent, with only four interceptions.
“Ben Holmes has done a great job,” Whitten said. “He made plays every week, and throws the long ball so well. And Derek has shown tremendous leadership.”
A win over Azusa Pacific would send the Texans into the second round of the playoffs the following week against either Texas A&M-Commerce or Minnesota State-Duluth.
The Cougars, based in Azusa, California, have won three conference titles in their football history.
“They have a unique style of defense with a double eagle stack,” Whitten said. “You see that mostly on the West Coast. Texas A&M-Kingsville used to have that defense a couple of years ago. It’s pretty unconventional. They are conference champs, so we have our work cut out for us.”