SAN MARCOS – Texas State needed one more stop. The Bobcats entered overtime at FIU tied at 17 and it was the Panthers that would start on offense. Texas State running back Brock Sturges tied the game at 17 with a rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter and the former Allen High School star found himself in the defensive huddle to help hype up his teammates, specifically outside linebacker Issiah Nixon.
Nixon would strip the ball while recording a sack and Texas State recovered its third fumble of the game. Sturges wasted no time scoring his second rushing touchdown of the day to provide the Bobcats with their first road win against a non-conference opponent since 2016. Not all wins are created equal, and the 23-17 triumph over FIU could be a culture-confirming win for head coach Jake Spavital and his closely knit Bobcats.
“It is crazy that Isaiah Nixon made that play for us because I was in the huddle right before the play telling him, ‘Dude, you’re about to win the game for us’ and he went out there and made that big play,” Sturges said Tuesday at a weekly press conference. “We have love for each other, and we know we have to depend on each other and have each other’s back.”
That type of comradery didn’t exist at Texas State in 2020. It couldn’t. A pandemic made sure programs around the country kept their distance. Spavital estimates 65 new faces entered the program between 2019 and 2020 and the group was broken up following three spring practices. Players returned home and weren’t allowed back for team activities until the summer. And even those team activities were mostly limited to position groups or Zoom meeting.
“Last year, some of these guys didn’t even know the other players on the other side of the ball. We had three or four days of spring ball in before that was cancelled and then they left and didn’t come back until the summer when new faces were added,” offensive coordinator Jacob Peeler said. “They just didn’t get a chance to be around each other and know each other, and that is hard when you’re trying to build a team. Now, we’re getting to build a team and spend some more 1-on-1 times and less Zoom meetings.”
The result of a fractured team was a 2-10 season that included four losses in one-score games. Six of Texas State’s 10 defeats came from margins of 10 points or fewer, including an overtime loss to UTSA in Week 2. Texas State reversed that trend in Week 2 of 2021 and that could be the spark to turn around a program that entered the season 5-20 under Spavital.
“It gives us belief for the rest of the games. We were in a tight spot early in the season and now we know that we can overcome and win,” Nixon said. “There is a brotherly love feel this year. Everybody loves each other and wants to fight for each other. We’re ready to go to war every Saturday and win.”
Even the locker room looks different in 2021, and not because of some new upgrades to the facilities. The 2020 Bobcats spent most of the time in small groups such as position units. That manifested inside the locker room with running backs neighboring lockers with fellow running backs. The group was segregated. And the team played like separate forces. Spavital suggested there were instances of finger pointing between the offense and defense during moments of adversity on past squads.
Not in 2021. Spavital mixed it up, literally. Take Sturges. Texas State’s leading rusher from 2020 no longer neighbors with other running backs. The two people directly next to him are linebacker Brayden Stringer and defensive lineman Nick McCann. It’s one of the many ways a team can build cohesion. Another is night before games.
“One of the things I’ve always enjoyed is Friday nights in the hotels before a game on Saturday because you get to relax a little and enjoy a meal together,” Peeler said. “Last year, we had to-go boxes and you don’t get that time. When things get tough and you don’t know the guy you’re fighting with on a personal level, and that can be a problem.”
The next game up for Texas State is a Saturday showdown with Incarnate Word. UIW will bring a high-powered passing attack led by quarterback Cameron Ward. The sophomore won the 2021 Jerry Rice award for his efforts in the spring when he led the Cardinals to a 3-3 record by throwing for 2,260 yards and 24 touchdowns. He was first-team All-Southland in the spring.
It’ll be a different test for the Texas State defense. UIW passes roughly 70 percent of the time. Nixon said that fired him up because it would give the Texas State defense a chance to rush the passer and play in space rather than stack the box for the run.
The Bobcats were excellent in the red zone on both sides of the ball against FIU. Texas State scored three touchdowns in three red zone trips. Defensively, the Bobcats only allowed FIU to score on two of its four trips to the red zone, forcing a pair of fumbles. Texas State’s defense currently leads the Sun Belt with three defensive stops inside the red zone.
“The key to the game was the red zone efficiency. We scored on our three touchdowns on trips to the red zone. Defensively, we made them kick field goals,” Spavital said. “That and the turnover margin really turned the game for us because we scored two touchdowns off of their turnovers.”
That’s the type of complimentary football Texas State needs to compete in the Sun Belt, and it is the type of football only played by a team working together rather than pushing apart.
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