No. 11 Tarleton State outlasted No. 9 Abilene Christian 13-6 in a defensive slugfest Saturday night at Tarleton Memorial Stadium, marking the Texans’ second defeat of a top 10 opponent in school history.
More important than the national ranking implications, Tarleton kept pace atop the Lone Star Conference and the South Division standings and improved its standing in the race for a spot in the NCAA Division II playoffs.
The Texans improved to 8-1 on the season, 6-1 in LSC play and 3-1 in the South while dropping ACU to 7-2, 5-2 and 2-2, respectively.
Playing some big time D
Tarleton kept ACU out of the end zone all night, something no team had done in eight years and eight days. The last time the Wildcats did not score a touchdown was Oct. 16, 2001 in a 31-0 loss to Angelo State.
The Wildcats had just 72 yards after halftime and only 255 in the game. The No. 1 rushing offense in the LSC, which entered the contest averaging 200.4 yards per game on the ground, netted only 63 yards on 41 attempts.
ACU QB Mitchell Gale was 16-41 passing for 192 yards and two interceptions.
The Texans made three goal line stands in the first half to keep the game close. Linebacker Marcus Phillips picked off a pass in the end zone and twice the Wildcats failed to score on goal-to-go and were forced to settle for short field goals.
ACU never drove inside the Tarleton 30 in the second half, and the Texans tallied seven sacks and 14 tackles for loss while forcing nine three-and-outs.
Linebackers lead the way
Marcus Phillips probably never thought he would be fielding autograph requests as a small college football player, but that was the case Saturday night. He paused during multiple post-game interviews to sign a football for a young fan moments after his masterful performance featuring 12 tackles, 2.5 of them behind the line of scrimmage.
Then there was the interception on the goal line to keep ACU from scoring a touchdown in the first half, easily the biggest defensive play on a night full of big plays by defenders for each team.
Matt Knicky was also sensational. The sophomore linebacker had 14 tackles, 2.5 for loss and a sack on ACU’s final possession to earn the weekly LSC honor as Defensive Player of the Week in the South.
ACU played great D, too
It would be remiss not to mention that Abilene Christian was also spectacular defensively. Take away the 75-yard touchdown pass that won the game for Tarleton and the Texans have only 111 yards of total offense.
The Wildcats entered the game allowing only 40 rushing yards per game and were as good as advertised. Tarleton, which entered the contest averaging 180 per game on the ground, had negative 11 yards on 19 carries.
ACU forced Tarleton to punt a season-high 12 times.
Just in the nick of time
Tarleton did nothing offensively for three quarters. Its special teams had a turnover that led to an ACU field goal in the first half.
But when it mattered most, both the offense and special teams came through for the Texans. It started in the kicking game with Devin Guinn returning a punt 57 yards for a touchdown, making up for dropping a punt return in the first half. The big return earned Guinn the Special Teams Player of the Week honor in the South.
Then the offense took over, gaining well more than one-third of its total yards on one play when Scott Grantham hooked up with Jahmeel Hobson for a 75-yard touchdown pass for the win.
It was the third straight game Tarleton came back to win after trailing at halftime. It was the second time in three games the Texans trailed entering the fourth quarter but pulled off a comeback. The Texans have four second-half comebacks on the season, as they also trailed Central Oklahoma 14-7 at the break before winning big in LSC crossover play.
Joining the elite
Tarleton’s only previous win against a top 10 opponent came on Nov. 17, 2001 when the Texans upset No. 3 Chadron State 28-24.
Tarleton improved to 5-5 at home in games when the Texans and the opponent are both nationally ranked.
The victory led paired with losses by previously No. 3-ranked Bloomsburg, No. 8 Albany and No. 10 Charleston, resulted in the Texans jumping to No. 7 in this week’s American Football Coaches Association top 25 poll, released Monday. It is their highest ranking since being No. 6 for the third straight week in Sept. 28, 2002 poll and the first time Tarleton has been in the top 10 since No. 8 on Oct. 27, 2007.
The LSC South is arguably the toughest football league in all of NCAA Division II. There are 165 football programs in D2, broken into four regions and 12 conferences (plus some schools that compete as independents). There are 13 football programs in the LSC, including just six in the South. Four of the six South teams are ranked in the top 15 nationwide with Tarleton leading the way at No. 7, Texas A&M-Kingsville at No. 9, Midwestern State at No. 13 and Abilene Christian now at No. 15.
No rest for the weary, especially not in the LSC South which lines up like murderers’ row.
Tarleton travels to San Angelo to take on Angelo State at 6 p.m. Saturday. The Rams are 6-3 overall, 5-2 in the LSC and 2-2 in the South.
A win by the Texans and a loss by Texas A&M-Kingsville at Abilene Christian would guarantee Tarleton at least a share of the Lone Star Conference and South Division titles.
The Rams enter Saturday’s game playing for their playoff lives. Their hopes are already razor-thin after falling 43-15 at West Texas A&M last week.
The Texans have won their last seven meetings with ASU, including the last three played at San Angelo Stadium. Thanks to a nine-game win streak from 1970 through 1995, however, the Rams still lead the series 14-11.
Tarleton and ASU played on national television in Stephenville last year and the Texans intercepted a pass in the end zone on the game’s final play to hold on for a 31-24 win.