STEPHENVILLE – The intensity level in the NCAA Division II playoffs is always at a high level. The intensity level at Lonn Reisman Athletic Center at Memorial Stadium was at a fever pitch from the opening kick.
No. 21 Texas A&M-Commerce continued its recent history of playoff success as they pulled off a stunning 23-16 win over No. 3 Tarleton in the first round.
“That was a great contest out there tonight by two really good football teams. I hate the fact that they’re already out of the playoffs, but I love the fact that we’re still playing,” Texas A&M-Commerce head coach David Bailiff said. “This was a game we really felt we could win.”
“I thought it was an extremely hard-fought football game,” Tarleton head coach Todd Whitten said. “We congratulate Commerce. We’d won 11 in a row this year and I think we ran out of gas a little bit.
“I thought they took it to us up front a little bit.”
TAMUC quarterback Miklo Smalls had an incredible game for the Lions on Saturday afternoon as he completed 12-of-23 passes for 197 yards while adding 126 yards rushing on 16 carries.
“When you have No. 2 as your quarterback great things can happen. As you saw today, we rolled on his shoulders as much as we could,” Bailiff said. “We made that a point of emphasis and also to let (Miklo) handle the running game with some designed quarterback runs.”
The Lions faced Tarleton earlier this season and left Memorial Stadium with a tough 35-21 loss. Smalls credited the coaching staff for making adjustments.
“Watching film, being with the coaches and hearing what they teach us and seeing the corrections that we can make gave us another perspective of what we could do better playing them a second time,” Smalls said.
Smalls also gave credit to his offensive line who provided running lanes and did a great job against a tough defensive line.
“I absolutely love all five of them and if anyone goes down, I love the next person. I believe they held their own,” Smalls said. “The first time we played them they got in the backfield more than we would have liked, but this game they held their own and we won that battle.”
STOPPING THE RUN
The main key for the Lions success on defense was their ability to stop the running game of Tarleton. The Texans entered the game averaging 265.5 yards per game. TAMUC held Tarleton to only 56 total rushing yards.
“We knew this was going to be an incredible football game,” Bailiff said. “We knew how dynamic they’ve been offensively and how good they’ve been defensively.”
The defensive line harassed the Tarleton quarterback the entire game and closed the running lanes.
The performance of the defensive line allowed linebacker Terrell Collins to have a great game with 11 tackles, two sacks and broke up two passes.
“It’s no surprise. We had a great week of practice and we were very confident in our game plan,” Collins said. “It’s just all about being relentless and we preach on that throughout the week.”
CONTINUING THE TRADITION
Bailiff is in his first season as head coach of the Lions while Smalls and Collins were also experiencing their first playoff game at the D-II level.
The Lions continued a winning tradition as they have advanced to the second round of the NCAA playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.
“This is the expectations,” Bailiff said. “It was just business as usual at practice. We weren’t overly enthused. It was more of a business approach to get better and play the game on Saturday.”
The win was the first playoff win for Smalls at any level of competition.
“In high school, we lost both of our playoff games so the fact that we won is an amazing feeling inside and to win against a team like Tarleton who has showed their dominance and today we dominated,” Smalls said.
The loss brings a disappointing end to the Texans NCAA Division II football history as they prepare to join the FCS next season as an independent.
The Tarleton seniors have established a new standard for the football program and leave behind an incredible legacy to follow.
“These guys have had two undefeated (regular) seasons in a row and two conference championships outright,” Whitten said. “They’ve accomplished so much. I’ve never had the good fortune of coaching a better group of guys.”
“It’s been a great two years. It’s a tough loss but we’ll learn from it,” Edwards said. “I know they are going to keep it going and I’m happy for that.”
“We came in and told coach that we were going to change the culture and I think we did,” Holmes said. “I’m happy to be a part of it and I can’t thank coach Whitten enough for giving me a chance.”
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Texas A&M-Commerce will hit the road again next Saturday as they will play No. 7 Colorado School of Mines at 1 p.m. Central Time.
“We’re going to enjoy this one on the bus ride home and get back and get ready for Colorado School of Mines,” Bailiff said.
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