By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
The Sac and Pac Room at Bobcat Stadium is where the Texas State football fans meet on scheduled occasions to discuss the fortunes of their football team, which haven’t often been prosperous. Sunday night, like magic, it was different.
The room crowded with players, coaches, team boosters, university officials and city leaders, who learned in that meeting that the Bobcats are going to Montana in the first round of the NCAA Division I championship tournament, which starts next Saturday.
The Bobcats will kickoff at 1 p.m. from Missoula, MT. The game will not be televised, but it will be broadcast locally over KTSW-FM (88.9).
Montana (11-1) won a share of its 11th straight Big Sky championship this season to earn the fourth seed in the playoffs, which means Texas State, in some sense, is the 13th seed out of 16 teams in the playoffs. In order to keep travel expenses down, however, the NCAA doesn’t straightforwardly seed the playoffs. It seeds the top four teams and brackets the rest geographically.
Because of the NCAA’s geographic bracketing, Texas State officials figured the Bobcats probably were headed for Montana, so the announcement was not a surprise. The real surprise, in longer terms, is that Texas State is in the tournament at all.
Texas State, which has mostly struggled for 25 years of Division I football, is going to the playoffs for the second time in four years after advancing to the national semifinals in 2005. Most remarkably, this year’s appearance isn’t so much an extension of the 2005 team, but a rebuilding from it.
The former Texas State coach, Manny Matsakis, arranged the 2005 team to have 37 seniors out of 63 scholarship players. When that class dispersed, the Bobcats had to replenish their base of players. David Bailiff, in his second year as the Texas State head coach in 2005, stayed for one more year, then moved on to Rice.
The bulk of rebuilding has fallen to Brad Wright, who turned in a 4-7 record last year and might have been coaching for his career two months ago. Now, Wright has a winning career record at Texas State (13-12). Wright and Bailiff (21-15) are the only winning coaches at Texas State since Dennis Franchione (13-9 in 1990 and 1991).
“The difference between now and 2005 is that we were set up for success in 2005,” Wright said. “They had 37 seniors on that team. After that, in my opinion, we had some guys who were ‘me’ instead of ‘we’ guys, and they had to go.”
So, Wright cleaned house and kept recruiting, turning up speedy gems like running back Karrington Bush from Whitewright and wide receiver Mishak Rivas from Weslaco. Bush rushed for 1,039 yards this year as a sophomore, reaching 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons. Rivas, a freshman, caught 35 passes for 569 yards this year, also rushing for 123 yards.
Two new defensive coaches this year also contributed. If Defensive Coordinator Fred Bleil and defensive line coach Mike Bugar didn’t suddenly make Texas State the country’s most daunting defense, they dramatically tightened the unit against the big play and game-planned at least one win, the 34-10 triumph against Nicholls State on Nov. 15. The Nicholls option, which has damaged Texas State for years, managed only 118 rushing yards.
The season began with little to foreshadow a run to the playoffs. The Bobcats squeezed by Division II Angelo State in the opener, 21-14, as quarterback Bradley George went to the bench for ineffective play. The next week, George started badly and went back to the bench in a 47-36 loss at Southern Methodist. The Bobcats then won at Northern Colorado, 38-35, making a stop on the goal line as time expired. Then came the 34-20 loss at home to Southern Utah.
At that point, the Bobcats were 2-2, they had yet to play a good game and the quarterback who was supposed to guide them languished on the bench. So, there wasn’t a lot of excitement on the hill. But there was urgency at Bobcat Stadium.
“Southern Utah was the game where we learned that we have to be unified,” Texas State fullback Blake Burton said. “I thought we had that game won. We knew after that that we were going to have to prepare hard every week.”
The preparation started showing results right away, as George came off the bench to lead a 63-39 win against Texas Southern. The offense began rolling as never before. At the end of the regular season, the Bobcats rank fifth nationally in total offense (460.25 yards per game) and fourth in scoring offense (38.33 points per game). George is ranked sixth nationally in passing efficiency (162.01 rating).
In addition, the Bobcats have won in the clutch, taking three straight games in which their season hung in the balance. The playoffs will be no different in that respect.
“It’s been like the playoffs for three straight weeks for us,” George said.
Montana is in the playoffs for the 16th straight season. The Grizzlies are led by their quarterback, Cole Bergquist, who is right ahead of George in the pass efficiency rankings (fifth at 162.89).
The winner between Texas State and Montana will play the winner between Weber State (9-2) and Cal Poly (8-2). On the other side of Texas State’s half-bracket, top-seeded James Madison (10-1) will open against Wofford (9-2), while Villanova (9-2) plays Colgate (9-2).
Three-time defending national champion Appalachian State (10-2) drew the No. 2 seed and a first-round home game against South Carolina State (10-2) in a game that will be televised on ESPNU Saturday at noon. The winner will play a week later against the winner between Richmond (9-3) and Eastern Kentucky (8-3).
The other half of that bracket features No. 3 seeded Northern Iowa (10-2), which will begin the playoffs against Maine (8-4). The winner of that game will play the winner between New Hampshire (9-2) and Southern Illinois (9-2).Email | Print