BLACKWATER DRAW — Tarleton State football coach Cary Fowler sounded like his team had just lost.
Actually, the Texans almost did. A last-second desperation pass into the end zone from Eastern New Mexico University backup quarterback Sawyer Cornelius bounced off the hands of receiver Darian Dale on a jump ball in the end zone, and the Texans held on for a 34-28 Lone Star Conference win on Saturday at Greyhound Stadium.
Tarleton (1-3, 1-1 LSC) used two goalline stands and a first-quarter, 44-yard fumble return for a touchdown by linebacker Dan Jackson to break into the win column after three close setbacks.
Sophomore kicker Jerry Owens booted two field goals, including a 49-yarder, and averaged 50 yards on three punts for Tarleton, which nearly blew a 17-point, third-quarter lead to a late comeback led by Cornelius. Owens also executed a successful onside kick, recovering the ball himself.
“We got a win and that’s important to our program,” Fowler said. “(But) to me, the team I saw the past three weeks didn’t look like the same team. We played so bad.
“I’m a perfectionist, and that’s where I want to go with this program. They’re (Texans) a great bunch of kids and I love them, but it’s attention to detail (that’s needed).”
In truth, the Texans controlled much of the game after falling behind early 7-0 on junior quarterback Wes Wood’s 39-yard touchdown run. But senior quarterback Nick Stephens, a transfer from the University of Tennessee, threw for three touchdowns and, with the help of the goalline stands — one ending in a blocked field goal just before halftime, the other on downs early in the fourth quarter — Tarleton escaped with the win.
Wood completed 31-of-51 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for a net of 54 yards, but the Texans intercepted him three times. That prompted ENMU coach Mark Ribaudo to make the change with just over six minutes left and Tarleton leading 34-21.
“I just wanted to change the mojo,” Ribaudo said. “We were in kind of an offensive lull for a while.
“Sawyer did a hell of a job.”
Cornelius, a redshirt sophomore from Amarillo who hadn’t played this season until Saturday, led the Hounds on an 11-play, 73-yard drive ending in a 5-yard TD toss to Seth Bailey with 1:12 left. Dale then recovered ENMU’s onside kick and the Hounds reached the Texans’ 37 before their last-ditch play came up empty.
Cornelius finished 11-for-16 for 102 yards.
“The kids battled their (fannies) off; I can’t ask them to play any harder,” Ribaudo said. “We just have to eliminate some mistakes.”
The teams combined for 54 first downs, 119 passes and more than 900 yards of total offense. Still, the Hounds played relatively well on defense, forcing three three-and-outs on Tarleton’s first four series and keeping the Texans contained much of the way.
Fowler, whose team ended a stretch of three road games, was relieved to survive heading into a clash next week at home against West Texas A&M.
“I don’t know if we could have ever recovered (had they lost),” he said.