UPDATE at 7:47 p.m. on 11/23/19 with information about the next playoff game
The No. 7 seed Texas A&M University-Commerce Lion football team ended No. 2 Tarleton State's undefeated season and sent them on their way out of NCAA Division II with a loss as the Lions triumphed 23-16 in the first round of the playoffs Saturday.
The win also broke a three-game losing streak to the Texans dating back to the middle of the 2018 season.
The A&M-Commerce defense played one of their best games of the season on Saturday, and was tested early after Lion quarterback Miklo Smalls was intercepted on the third play of the game, giving Tarleton good field position early. However, the Lions held tough and forced the Texans to settle for a 44-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead.
A&M-Commerce answered, driving 75 yards down the field in convincing fashion to punch the ball through to the endzone on an 11-yard run by Antonio Lealiiee.
Not to be outdone, the Texans also scored on the ensuing drive, with Ben Holmes finding Camron Lewis on a 23-yard touchdown pass. The first quarter ended with Tarleton sporting a 10-7 lead, but A&M-Commerce was threatening to score as time expired.
Jake Viquez successfully converted a 46-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter to knot the game up at 10-apiece. Later in the quarter he added a 32-yarder to put the Lions ahead for the second time.
Neither team had much success offensively, but A&M-Commerce was dominating the ground game, which was a far cry from the last meeting between the two teams where the Lions could barely muster more than 60 rushing yards for the whole game. The Texans were without Daniel McCants, who had more than 1,400 rushing yards this season.
The half ended with the Lions up 13-10 after Texans' kicker Christian Hernandez missed at 39-yard field goal. A&M-Commerce held the ball for more than 20 minutes in the half.
Hernandez' struggles continued as Tarleton's first drive stalled at the Lion 22 yard line, and he missed the ensuing field goal. The next drive, Viquez nailed his third field goal of the day, this one from 41 yards out, to extend the lead to 16-10. Hernandez returned to form on the Texans' next drive, booting a 26-yarder through the uprights after Tarleton made it to A&M-Commerce's five yard line but failed to break through the goal line.
The Lions finally scored another touchdown late in the quarter, as Jemal Williams broke through several tackles to get a nine-yard scoring run. A&M-Commerce was set up well following a 60-yard run by quarterback Smalls earlier in the drive. The end of the third quarter saw the Lions ahead 23-13.
Viquez missed from 39 yards out early in the fourth quarter, sullying his perfect game thusfar. Momentum seemed to briefly swing decidedly in A&M-Commerce's favor as Sammy Gray intercepted a pass from Holmes, but it was called back following a pass interference penalty. The flag didn't end up hurting the Lions as the Texans later punted on the drive.
Tarleton got the ball with just under seven minutes remaining, and pulled off a grueling, 16-play drive that took most of the game clock away. On the drive, Holmes found Zimari Manning for a first down on fourth-and-21, and then again found Lewis on a 10-yard pass where he was downed at the one yard line.
But as they had time and time again during the contest, the Lion defense stonewalled the Texans, not allowing them to score a touchdown. Tarleton was forced to try a field goal, which Hernandez successfully booted through from extra-point distance.
Tarleton attempted an onside kick and ended up recovering, but were flagged for touching the ball before it had travelled 10 yards, giving the ball to A&M-Commerce. Following a first-down run by Williams, the Lions were able to run out the clock and advance to the next round of the playoffs.
Holmes finished his final game with the Texans completing 21 of 44 passes for 274 yards and one touchdown. However he was sacked five times by Lion defenders. Lewis was the top receiver, catching eight passes for 103 yards and a score. Manning had five catches for 87 yards. Tarleton only had 56 total rushing yards in the game, with Khalil Banks led the team with 47 yards on 13 carries. The Texans did not turn the ball over during the game.
Smalls completed 12 of 23 throws for 197 yards and an interception, but he also was A&M-Commerce's leading rusher with 126 yards on 16 carries. Williams and Lealiiee each had a rushing touchdown, with Williams gaining 67 yards on 14 rushes while Lealiiee had 27 yards on 7 tries. The Lion defense allowed just 16 points and 330 yards of total offense to a team that had averaged more than 45 points and 500 yards per game, while wrapping up Texan ballcarriers in the backfield nine times during the game.
A&M-Commerce now leads the all-time series between the two teams 16-14 and Saturday's game might be the last time the teams will square off for a while, as Tarleton will move to NCAA Division I next season.
The win improves the Lions to 9-2 on the season while the Texans fall to 11-1. A&M-Commerce will advance to the next round of the playoffs to face Colorado School of Mines, who is also sitting undefeated at 12-0. The Orediggers came back from a 21-7 second-half deficit and hit a field goal as time expired to defeat Sioux Falls 24-21 on Saturday.
The next game will take place on Nov. 30 in Golden, Colorado. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. Central time.