By Joseph Hamrick
The Commerce Journal
Another strong performance by junior quarterback Tyrik Rollison led the Lions (2-0) to a 45-37 win over the #25 Delta State University (1-1) at AT&T Stadium in Dallas.
Rollison had 290 yards passing and two touchdowns on the night, both to Vernon Johnson, who also had 126 yards receiving.
The Statesmen began the game with an out of bounds kickoff to have the Lions start on the 35 yard line but they couldn't take advantage of it as Tyrik Rollison went down for his first sack of the season.
The Lions struggled early on with penalties, with two illegal formations on offense called against them in the first quarter, costing them crucial yards.
Taking advantage of a short field, the Statesmen scored with a 40 yard touchdown pass from Dennis Robertson to Patrick Bethley to put the score at 7-0.
In his first game of eligibility, Vernon Johnson caught a bullet that Rollison threw right through a defender for his first catch of the season, followed a few plays later with his first career touchdown catch.
True freshmen Cameron Napoleon caught his first interception that was followed by a 41 yard touchdown pass to Johnson.
The Lions struggled on special teams, giving up big punt returns to the Statesmen, who constantly started their drives at or near Lion territory.
But the strong Lion defensive line held the Statesmen at bay, sacking Robertson twice in the first quarter.
Rollison was able to pull the Lions out of starts deep in their own territory with quick feet and a strong arm, gaining 148 yards through the air and two touchdowns in the first quarter and finished the half with 243 yards passing.
The Lions offensive line struggled with penalties and an inability to protect Rollison in the pocket, as he was sacked five times in the first half.
Ronald Fields dodged multiple Statesmen defenders to return an 84 yard punt return for a touchdown, putting the Lions up 21-10 in the second quarter.
The Statesmen recognized a few repeated plays by the Lions, including a wide receiver wheel run and screen passes, stopping them at or behind the yard of scrimmage nearly every time those plays were ran.
The strong Lion defensive line kept Robertson out of the pocket and forced him to throw most of his passes while scrambling, holding him to 13 completions in 26 tries in the first half.
The Lions sacked Statesmen quarterbacks Robertson and Travis Champion eight times during the game, and defensive lineman Tevin Moore recorded three.
Johnson said it was because of the strong defensive line that the Lions were able to turn the ball over three times, including one interception return and one fumble return for a touchdown.
"They did a great job," he said. "That's the reason why we did great."
The Statesmen ended the half with a 34 yard field goal to bring it to Lions 21, Statesmen 16.
Kristoddie Woods took advantage of a fumble to start off the second half, returning it for a 17 yard fumble return for a touchdown.
Robertson went down early on in the first half with an injury and back up quarterback Champion took over the Statesmen offense.
Champion threw through the Lion defense on his first drive for a 16 yard touchdown pass to Casey Osborne, bringing it to 28-23 Lions.
In their first play of the second half, Rollison was sacked for a sixth time deep in Lion territory.
Starting Lion left tackle Jordan DeCorte went down with a leg injury early on in the third quarter, making him the second starting offensive lineman to be injured.
Two Lion defensive players, C.J. Johnson and Jeremy Dodson also went down with injuries in the third quarter.
A would be 40 yard catch by Johnson was called back because he stepped out of bounds en route to the ball.
The Statesmen had good field position for most of the second half as the Lions could not get out of their own field.
The Lions couldn't stop D'Juan Bellaire from running five yards for a touchdown, putting the Statesmen up 30 to 28 late in the third quarter.
The Lion offense stalled in the third quarter, only getting one first down in the third quarter, but came alive early on in the fourth on a trick play where Deric Davis threw a 46 yard touchdown pass to Stacy Howard.
Johnson said the offense was able to turn it around after they began executing their plays like they practiced.
The Lions injury woes continued to plague them as a third defensive player Kristoddie Woods went down early in the fourth.
Head coach Colby Carthel said the team has adopted a "next man up" mentality to make up for the injuries accrued during the game.
The Lions couldn't capitalize on a missed field goal by the Statesmen as Rollison lost a fumble deep in their own territory.
A valiant goal line defense stopped the Statesmen offense on their fourth and goal attempt.
An interesting play happened near the end of the game as Ronald Fields fumbled after an interception near the end zone but was picked up for a touchdown by Leo Migo to give the Lions a 12 point lead.
The Lions capitalized with a field goal after a bad Statesmen snap on a punt, bringing the score to 45-30 Lions.
After a one yard touchdown run by Timothy Foy, the Statesmen failed in their attempted onside kick, allowing the Lions to run down the clock for a 45-37 win.
The Lions have scored a total of 96 points in their first two games. Johnson said this trend should continue through the season.
"If y'all thought this was good, you just wait," he said.
The undefeated Lions will play the West Texas Buffaloes in Canyon to see which team will come out still undefeated after the Sept. 21 game.
Carthel said his team will prepare to face his old one the same way as any other game.
"We're not going to prepare any different," he said. "We'll enjoy this victory for 24 hours, then saddle back up."