San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

November 21st, 2008
Bobcats’ season of change could deliver title Saturday

Texas State quarterback Bradley GeorgeBy BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large

Somewhere, almost imperceptibly, this football season changed at Texas State.

No one can really say when it happened, but everyone knows that the Texas State season at the end of November looks a lot different than the same team’s season at the beginning of October.

The turning point, perhaps, was that ineffectual 34-20 loss to Southern Utah at Bobcat Stadium on Sept. 27. The Bobcats alienated their home crowd, which drove off into the night thinking the local 11 was the same raggedy outfit that ended last year 4-7. The Bobcats at that point were 2-2 and the arrow was pointing down.

But that’s not the team that emerged through the last eight weeks. Entering Saturday’s regular season finale at Sam Houston State (2 p.m.), the Bobcats are 7-4 overall and 4-2 in the Southland Conference, needing only a win in this game to capture the league championship and the automatic NCAA playoff bid that goes with it.

Even if the Bobcats lose this game, they still take the prizes if McNeese State loses at Central Arkansas and Northwestern State loses at Stephen F. Austin. The Bobcats are tied in first place with McNeese State (4-2), and hold the tiebreaker by virtue of their win at McNeese State. Northwestern State is 3-3 in the league with an outside chance.

If Texas State, Northwestern State and McNeese finish in a three-way tie at 4-3, then Texas State is out on a tiebreaker going all the way down to each team’s performance against the fourth-place teams. If those fourth-place teams at 3-4 are Sam Houston and Southeastern Louisiana, then McNeese State goes to the playoffs. If those fourth-place teams are Sam Houston and Nicholls State, then Northwestern State is in the tournament.

Obviously, the simplest solution is for Texas State to win at Sam Houston.

Since that loss to Southern Utah, the Bobcats have won five of their seven games, losing once in overtime and losing the other time by a touchdown. Again, no one can pinpoint exactly where this team changed, but all agree that it had to start with that loss to Southern Utah.

“If it was going to change, it had to happen after that,” Texas State coach Brad Wright said.

Determined and, perhaps, chastened, the Bobcats started playing better, due in large part because they began preparing better during the week. It also happens, however, that junior quarterback Bradley George, benched for two weeks due to poor performance, came off the bench in the second quarter of the next game, a 63-39 win against Texas Southern, completing nine of ten passes for 225 yards and three touchdowns in his first ten minutes.

George, who passed for 2,099 yards last year, went right back into his starting position, and his contribution to this turnaround can barely be overstated. George has passed this year for 2,082 yards, almost as many as last year, even though he has thrown only 238 passes, which is nearly 100 fewer than the 334 he threw last season. In games within the Southland Conference, George has completed 60.9 percent of his passes, including 18 touchdowns against only two interceptions.

So, unbeknownst to their following, the Bobcats were on their way. Next up, they went into McNeese State, ranked third nationally at the time, and held on for a 45-42 win. A week later, the Bobcats played a representative game in a 31-24 loss to Central Arkansas.

The Bobcats rebounded with a 62-21 win at Sam Houston State, then returned home and staged another good effort in a 34-31 overtime loss to Northwestern State. Much like the Central Arkansas game, the Bobcats showed up to play a football game and lost not because they couldn’t or didn’t play, but because someone has to lose. The team began believing it was close.

“It was a nerve wracking week to see what was going to happen after Southern Utah,” Wright said. “But I think the genuine turning point was Northwestern, when we put it all on the line and there was genuine disappointment after the loss instead of a ‘nah.’ To see kids hurting and disappointed and determined when they showed up Sunday, you started thinking that maybe we were going in the right direction.”

Yet, Wright maintained, the situation was fragile. He might have thought his team was going in the right direction, but, like many observers, he needed to see more before really believing it. The “culture of losing” that Wright so often discusses doesn’t just go away in a couple of weeks, and it still hasn’t gone away, but it could be going away, and that’s a corner for Texas State to turn before selling enough tickets to take a serious crack at bowl-level football.

A week following the Northwestern State loss, Texas State went on the road and hammered Southeastern Louisiana, 38-24. Then, the Bobcats returned home to win the Battle for the Paddle in a 34-10 win against Nicholls State last Saturday in their best defensive performance of the season.

Earlier last week, the Southland Conference ruled that 5-1 Central Arkansas can’t win the league championship while transitioning to Division I, which kept the NCAA from pulling the league’s automatic playoff berth. Later last Saturday night, after the Bobcats beat Nicholls, McNeese beat Northwestern, placing Texas State in its present position.

Win and they’re in. Simple. And no longer does Wright worry about his football team’s approach.

“If you aren’t ready at this time of the year, with what we have to play for, you’d better check your pulse,” Wright said. “There’s a lot on the line, and if you have any memory at all, you remember last year.”

Many Texas State players entered this season remembering last year, especially the final game of the season, when Sam Houston State came to Bobcat Stadium, scored the final 19 points with three fourth-quarter touchdowns and won, 29-28, on a touchdown with 13 seconds left.

Sam Houston State (4-5 overall, 2-4 Southland) opened the league season this year with a 48-46 loss at Central Arkansas and has fulfilled little of that early promise. However, the Bearkats’ stakes would look a lot different today if they could have pulled out the Central Arkansas game and reversed last week’s 30-27 overtime loss to Southeastern Louisiana.

Behind quarterback Rhett Bomar, the Bearkats are a throwing team, ranked second among SLC teams with 356.7 passing yards in SLC games. Their rushing offense ranks sixth at 107.8 yards per game, which is still enough to put them second in total offense at 464.5 yards.

“They’re going to throw it,” Wright said. “They’re going to make sure that Bomar gets his chances.”

But the Bobcats certainly are good enough to accomplish today’s mission. Looking at the SLC team statistics that count only SLC games, one sees just how well the Bobcats have played relative to the league. They rank first in scoring offense (39.0 points), total offense (481.0 yards), pass efficiency (159.6 ratings) – get this – pass defense (220.8 yards per game), turnover margin (plus-1.00 per game), first downs (154), least penalty yardage (48.5 yards per game), fourth-down conversions (eight of 12, 66.7 percent, tied with Northwestern State), red zone offense (88.9 percent scores), fewest sacks against (six), field goal percentage (88.9), PAT kicking (30-for-30) and kickoff coverage (46.3 yard average gain on kickoffs).

In short, the stats say it’s true that Texas State runs a good offense, especially in the passing game, but the Bobcats also are winning games in the margins by protecting the quarterback, not taking penalties, winning the turnover battles, cashing in their chances, making it on fourth down and executing in the kicking game.

They’ve certainly got the look of conference champions in the team statistics. And with a win today, the Bobcats can claim that title in every sense.

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