Tarleton State plays its first NCAA DI game to kick off the unprecedented FCS spring football season Saturday, falling to McNeese State, 40-37, in double overtime thriller in Stephenville
STEPHENVILLE – After much anticipation, the first-ever NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) game played at Memorial Stadium proved to be well worth the wait. But unfortunately for the Tarleton State Texans, the pomp and celebration did not deliver the desired outcome.
With a host of dignitaries, honored guests and 1,324 fans in attendance to open the unprecedented FCS spring football season, the McNeese State Cowboys scored 14 unanswered points to close out regulation before subduing the Texans, 40-37, in double overtime Saturday night.
After freshman placekicker Adrian Guzman nailed a 45-yard field goal to open the second overtime period, McNeese State quarterback Cody Orgeron scored on a walkoff 19-yard touchdown run to hand Tarleton State the heartbreaking loss.
“It was a hard-fought game by both teams,” Tarleton State head coach Todd Whitten said. “There’s probably some good and some bad things tonight. We thought we had the game in hand, and then made some real critical mistakes. But you have to give credit to McNeese State. They battled, and I thought their quarterback made some really good plays for them down the stretch.”
Trailing 10-0 late in the first quarter, the Texans shook off the jitters to pile up 408 yards of total offense in their FCS debut to take control of the game heading into the fourth quarter.
Scoring 14 unanswered points in the third quarter, the Texans grabbed their first lead of the game when redshirt junior quarterback Steven Duncan found senior wide receiver Tariq Bitson in the corner of the end zone for a 13-yard scoring strike. Late in the period, Tarleton State’s true freshman Braelon Bridges broke free on a 27-yard touchdown run to give the Texans a two-score advantage, 24-10, heading into the final frame.
Despite enjoying a 31-17 lead with only three minutes left in the game, Tarleton State could not seal the deal. McNeese State began the rally when Orgeron connected with Mason Pierce for a 26-yard touchdown pass before the Cowboys recovered the onside kickoff. With just 35 seconds left in regulation, Orgeron found Trevor Begue open for a 12-yard strike to tie the game.
“We had some spurts where we played really well, and we had a nice lead,” Whitten said. “We had them in third and long and made an unfortunate mistake roughing their passer. They went down and scored on that drive, and then recovered the onside kick. They really out-executed us down the stretch and took the game from us.”
In his first career collegiate game, Bridges ran for 112 yards on just 15 carries for a pair of touchdowns.
Bitson led the Texans with five receptions for 87 yards while Duncan completed 22 of 39 passes for 217 yards. Defensively, senior linebacker Chadwick Thibodeaux posted a game-high 14 tackles, followed by junior linebacker Zech Hopkins with 10.
“More than anything, we have to be able to learn from this,” Whitten said. “There’s not much room for error. To be in a tight ballgame down the stretch and have penalties like we did, it’s hard to overcome those. It’s disappointing. We had a chance to open up with a win, and we weren’t able to close it out.”
Playing an full eight-game schedule this spring without a bye week, the Texans will not be eligible for the playoffs this season as they transition to FCS – the only division playing a national championship game this spring with the final slated for mid-May. The playoff field has been reduced to 16 teams with 11 of the bids being automatic qualifiers.
With the battle for the five at-large spots will be intense, the Southland Conference figures to be a player for one of the at-large bids before SFA, Central Arkansas, ACU, Lamar, and Sam Houston depart for the WAC in the fall. The Bearkats are favored to challenge for the conference title and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
Playing it first game against an FBS opponent next Saturday, Tarleton State (0-1) will hit the road to visit WAC rival New Mexico State (0-0) at Aggie Memorial Stadium in Las Cruces, NM.
“We have a lot to learn,” Whitten said. “Hopefully, we’ll apply the lessons from tonight and get better in the next one.”
Photos courtesy of TARLETON STATE FOOTBALL
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