Greetings, Lion fans, and to borrow a phrase, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Never more true than this week, when the Lions face the Tarleton State Texans for the fourth and final time in the past two seasons. The stakes have never been bigger than they are right now.
The Lions come into the playoffs on a roll, winners of four straight, including a masterful defensive performance, a dominating 17-3 win over Angelo State, ranked seventh in the region, eliminating the Rams from the playoffs. Red shirt sophomore Miklo Smalls, 6’2″ 185 lbs., was brilliant again, despite being held to 142 yards of 14 of 22 completions by a stout Angelo defense, but none bigger than the 2 yard corner route to a wide open senior tight end Tyler Guice, 6’3″ 250 lbs., that iced the game. Smalls earlier staked the Lions to a lead that they never relinquished on a 17 yard scamper with 18 seconds left in the first quarter. Red shirt junior kicker Jake Viquez added a 40 yard field goal, and that was all the scoring the Lions would need.
If the Lions are to prevail this week, they are going to have to have that same kind of effort. Tarleton State comes into this game ranked #3 in the country, and #2 in the region, which seems to have disturbed some fans of the purple clad Texans.
The Texans are undefeated this season, currently 11-0, with their most recent win a 41-24 trouncing of Western New Mexico in Silver City. Senior quarterback Ben Holmes was lights out, going 19 of 34 for 451 yards and 4 touchdowns, three of which went to leading receiver Zimari Manning, who had 6 catches for a whopping 196 yards, including a 75 yarder.
However, the Texans had to stage a second half comeback, trailing the Mustangs 17-14 at the half, before exploding for 27 second half point to take the win.
Now, though, it is a new season. The Lions and Texans are both 0-0, and start anew. Let’s break it down…..
UP FRONT/TALE OF THE TAPE-
Lion Offensive Line-6’3″ 290 lbs.
Texans Front 6(D Line & Linebackers)-6’2″ 262 lbs.
The Lion offensive line face a real challenge this week. The Texans, despite having what appears to be an average secondary, have offset that image with a ferocious pass rush, led by senior defensive lineman BJ Jefferson, 6’1″ 245 lbs., and junior linebacker Erick Willis, 6’3″ 205 lbs., who have 7 1/2 sacks each. Junior defensive lineman Jordan Wells, 5’11” 275 lbs., isn’t far behind with 6 sacks. Basically, while not having great size, the Texans have a very active, aggressive front that like to rush the passer, especially when they can force the opponent to be one dimensional . Jefferson leads the Texans in tackles with 86 (39 solo). Junior linebacker Ronell Wilson, 6’3″ 235 lbs. follows with 59 (29 solo).
The Lion offensive line are not without talent of their own, however. They are an experienced group, and have seen high pressure defenses all year. They have protected Smalls well, allowing just over 2 sacks per game average this season. Led up front by red shirt junior Amon Simon, 6’5″ 290 lbs., red shirt junior center Christian Hernandez, 6’1″ 285 lbs., and red shirt sophomore Richard West, 6’6″ 285 lbs., the offensive line has adjusted well to new offensive coordinator Billy Riebock’s scheme and terminology, and have done a great job opening holes for running backs that weren’t expected to produce much this season. Red shirt junior Antonio Lealiiee, 5’11” 210 lbs, and converted linebacker, sophomore Jemal Williams, 6’0″ 190 lbs., have been willing beneficiaries of the work of the offensive line.
MOVERS AND SHAKERS/THE BACK LINE-The Texans back line is led by senior Prince Robinson, a 6’0″ 190 lb. senior, who has 51 tackles (36 solo) to go along with a team leading 4 interceptions. Junior defensive back Benjie Edwards, 5’11” 185 lbs., is tied for the team lead in interceptions with 4, and has 36 tackles (29 solo). Senior defensive back Jai Edwards, 6’0″ 200 lbs., has 63 tackles (33 solo), and provides a real force in run support.
The Lions offense is led by Miklo Smalls, who is an efficient 192-278 for a 232.1 yards per game average, with 22 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, and a long of 78 yards. He also has made key plays with his feet, including the touchdown last week against Angelo that gave the Lions a lead they would not surrender.
On the other end of those Smalls dimes is senior wide out Ryan Stokes, 6’3″ 185 lbs., who has 36 catches for 500 yards, 4 touchdowns, and a long of 52. Junior Chance Cooper, 6’3″ 200 lbs., has returned from injury with a vengeance, and has produced 413 yards on 29 catches, 3 touchdowns, and a long of 73 yards. There are no eye popping stats from the Lion offense, but they have spread the wealth among a number of players, making it difficult for opposing defenses to key on any one player.
The Lion running backs, although banged up, and employing the “next man up” mentality, have done very well this season. Lealiiee leads with 680 yards on 97 carries, with 6 touchdowns, and a long of 56 yards, while Williams has 368 yards on 55 carries, 3 touchdowns, and a long of 40 yards. Williams’s punishing style served the Lions well in the fourth quarter of the Angelo game, setting up the game clinching touchdown to Guice.
VERY SPECIAL, INDEED-Kicker Jake Viquez continues to impress, winning LSC Special Teams Player of the Week honors, kicking a 40 yard field goal, and doing an outstanding job with his directional kicking on kickoffs. He also gives the Lions another dimension when they go into a two punter formation.
Punter Andrew Gomez has been steady all year, with 31 punts for a 40.6 yard average.
The aforementioned Prince Robinson leads the Texans in both punt and kickoff returns, and while not producing huge numbers, 12 kickoff retruns for a 21.1 yard average, with a long of 44, and 12 punt returns for a 9.67 yard average, with a long of 35 yards, he has been extremely effective in setting the explosive Texans offense with a short field on which to work.
BY THE NUMBERS-
Turnovers-12 (+5 total)
Turnovers-24 (+15 total)
WHAT’S GOING DOWN-If it seems like it’s “goodness, it’s Tarleton again?” then one would be correct. For the fourth and final time, the Lions this time make the trek to Stephenville to face the truly toughest test they have had all year.
Yes, the Texans are undefeated. Yes, they are ranked #3 in the country, and #2 in Super Region 4. Yes, they have beaten the Lions three straight times, including 35-21 earlier this season.
It is by no means an impossible task. If David Bailiff(who in the opinion of us here at The Wire, should be LSC Coach of the Year), and his staff have proven anything, it’s that they are able to focus on the task at hand, and do what they need to do to win.
One thing should be noted here. Only the top 4 teams in each region are seeded. Playing the #2 seeded Texans does not mean the Lions are a #7 seed, and somehow sneaked in the back door of the playoffs. They earned the right to be here.
Remember this, Lion fans. Last November, the Blue and Gold had the ball inside the Tarleton 40 yard line with two timeouts, and 1:30 left on the fourth quarter clock, with a chance at a winning score. Only a sack/fumble prevented a comeback fans would still be talking about.
This past October, but for a questionable fumble call, and a end zone interception, the Lions and Texans might still be doing battle in a tie game.
Offensively, for the Lions, this is a very winnable game. It goes like this: 1.Protect Miklo Smalls-the Texans pass rush is top notch, and covers for an otherwise average secondary. Keep Smalls upright, and in a clean pocket, and let him do his thing. 2. Pound the Rock-It’s a proven football fact that good things happen when teams can run the ball, especially in a playoff situation. 3. To quote John Madden, “Don’t worry about the horse being blind, just load the wagon.” Translated, accept the fact that there’s going to be tough sledding, and just keep working, one play at a time, one quarter at a time.
Fans, this is a brand new start. The number to keep in mind is 5. 5 wins gets you a National Title. Number 1 in that quest begins this Saturday in Stephenville.
This is nothing new. The Lions have been here before. In 2017, they got in as a #5 seed, went on the road for all but one playoff game, and before we knew it, we had won a National Championship.
I asked this question then, and I ask it again now. WHY NOT US?
See You Saturday.