Looks like the Tarleton State University football players weren’t paying much attention to the preseason predictions.
Lone Star Conference champion Tarleton is enjoying its best football season ever, with the unbeaten and sixth-ranked Texans (12-0) poised to take on No. 1-ranked Minnesota State-Mankato Saturday in the NCAA Division II Super Region 4 final.
The game starts at noon this Saturday in Mankato, Minnesota.
Coach Todd Whitten’s Texans downed defending national champion Texas A&M-Commerce Saturday at home in Memorial Stadium, 34-28 for their second playoff victory. The Texans had dominated 24th-ranked Azusa Pacific at home the previous week to open the playoffs, 58-0.
Tarleton’s previous best mark for victories in a season was 11, in 1990, when the Texans finished 11-1.
The Texans went into last week’s game ranked third in the nation in rushing offense, and ninth in rushing defense. Running back Xavier Turner’s outstanding season has enabled the Texans to set a new school mark for single-season team rushing.
The Texans’ offensive attack continued to put up impressive numbers in the win over A&M-Commerce, picking up 350 of their 556 yards on the ground. Daniel McCants provided the Texans with 181 yards rushing and two TDs.
But none of this success was supposed to happen — according to prognosticators.
During the LSC’s preseason Media Day event, the Texans were tagged as the fifth-best team among the nine schools. Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine picked TSU as the No. 6 team in its preseason LSC rankings, with A&M-Commerce picked to repeat as conference champion.
While some may be shocked that the Texans are soaring into the third round of postseason play for the first time in school history, Whitten said Tuesday that his team’s success hasn’t really surprised him.
“Not really,” Whitten said. “These guys have worked so hard. I had an idea they could accept what was in front of them, and they didn’t take any days off.
“My expectations were high for this team. They have risen to the occasion every time. I think each week they have gained confidence.”
Whitten noted that the excitement within the team has extended to the community, supporting the Texans in their thrilling run through the two home playoff contests.
“I think it’s been fabulous,” Whitten said. “I know the kids are excited. We’ve gotten great crowds. The community has done a great job of supporting us.”
Whitten has had coaching success before, but said this team is unique in how excited they are in getting more opportunities to play the game they love.
“I couldn’t be more proud of this group,” he added.
When asked if this squad reminds him of any he has coached in the past in its mental aspects, Whitten said, “All championship teams are mentally tough, and these kids are as well. They play four quarters. For 12 weeks in a row, they’ve been ready to go.”
Whitten, the winningest coach in the NCAA era at TSU and a four-time LSC Coach of the Year, said that key senior class members have been essential to finding the winning formula as well.
“We’ve got a great senior class along with some other guys and have turned this team into a family. They’ve got unity.”
TAKING ON NO. 1
Whitten noted that the 2018 Texans “travel well,” but Mankato presents a big challenge. The Mavericks advanced to the Division II quarterfinals with a 24-10 win over ninth-ranked Colorado Pueblo (11-2). Shane Zylstra, whose older brother Brandon Zylstra is a wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings, caught his 13th touchdown pass of the season for the Mavericks on a 52-yard connection with quarterback Ryan Schlichte.
The Mavericks were 13-1 last season, and were picked third in the American Football Coaches Association’s preseason rankings for 2018.
“We’ve got to always continue to run the ball and be physical up front,” Whitten said, noting that the Mavericks have a large offensive line that has produced 2,812 yards rushing and 2,757 yards passing.
Nate Gunn is their top rusher with 1,316 yards and 20 touchdowns, averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
Schlichte has passed for 1,760 yards and thrown for 17 touchdowns. Zylstra is his favorite receiver, with 54 catches for 1,053 yards and 13 TDs.