The Texas State football team took several small steps Saturday in a 37-21 win at Idaho.
By improving their record to 6-3, the Bobcats made themselves bowl eligible in just their second season of bowl-level football. Of course, being eligible isn’t the same as being invited. Considering that the Bobcats are new to the scene and two of their wins have come against lowly Idaho and winless Georgia State, they probably have more work to do.
The win also insured that the Bobcats will not finish the regular season with a losing record, and one more win clinches a winning record. Just three years ago, in 2010, the Bobcats closed out with six losses in their last seven games to finish tied in the Southland Conference basement.
Most important, though, to this football team, is that their freshman quarterback went on the road and won. Idaho coach Paul Petrino gave Bobcat quarterback Tyler Jones that opportunity, and Jones responded with his best game of his young career — 19 of 23 for 218 yards and two touchdowns.
Obviously noting that the Texas State offense of recent weeks was characterized by a strong running game and wobbly quarterbacking, Petrino sold out against the run and dared the freshman quarterback to beat him. It might not be the oldest strategy in college football, but it’s a commonplace of the last 40 years.
“We committed to saying they’re not going to beat us with the run,” Petrino said. “We didn’t want to let them run the ball right down our throats. We wanted to make them beat us throwing. And they did.”
Good strategy or not, Idaho ranks 122nd of 123 bowl-level teams in total defense, so it couldn’t execute the strategy. Jones cut the Vandals apart, completing passes to nine different receivers.
Idaho’s plan to stuff the Texas State run worked fine. The Bobcats rushed 38 times for 108 yards, an average of 3.8 yards per carry. But Jones averaged 9.9 yards per passing attempt, so the Bobcats moved the ball. Perhaps 336 total yards isn’t very much for 37 points, but the Bobcats scored almost half of them off short fields, driving 28 yards after a turnover for their first touchdown, 17 yards to a field goal after a 40-yard punt return, and 41 yards to a touchdown after Idaho botched fourth down.
When the Bobcats faced long fields, they could score that way, too, assembling touchdown drives of 75 and 70 yards. The second of those wasn’t so much a drive as a huge play, with the last 67 yards coming on a touchdown pass from Jones to Terrence Franks. The touchdown gave Texas State a 37-14 lead with 8:47 left in the game, killing what little suspense remained.
There never was all that much. Texas State never trailed, and led for the last 48 minutes of the game.
The Franks touchdown was one nail, the final one. There were others. Right as time expired in the first half, Texas State’s Andre Battle made a one-handed catch in the corner of the end zone on a four-yard pass from Jones. The score increased a tentative 17-14 Texas State lead to a more authoritative 23-14 lead. Jason Dann missed the point after kick.
In the third quarter, Idaho had a funny notion and ended up going for it on fourth-and-five from their own 38. They gained only three, and Texas State wasted little time taking advantage of this miscalculation. On fourth-and-one from the Idaho 20, Tim Gay rushed all the way into the end zone, giving the Bobcats a 30-14 lead.
The Texas State defense didn’t have the spectacular outing one might have wished against an offense averging 350.3 yards per game to rank 101st in the nation. Then again, Idaho finished with only 326 yards, 142 of them in the fourth quarter, when Texas State had the game in hand.
One should protest that a 16-point game going to the fourth quarter isn’t necessarily decided. But Idaho played the fourth quarter conservatively, imparting little urgency, though it did move the ball. Just slowly. Taking over at its own 11 with a 30-14 deficit early in the fourth quarter, Idaho and mixed runs with passes as if the game were scoreless in the first quarter. The Vandals moved to the Texas State 30 that way, then Austin Rehkow missed a 47-yard field goal.
After the touchdown by Franks, Idaho started at its own 22 with 8:38 left and played with little sense of having to beat the clock. The Vandals marched 78 yards and scored a touhdown, but they still were down, 37-21, and they ran the clock down to 3:54.
The game was long over by then. The Texas State faithful were wondering what kind of bowl the Bobcats can attract.
Now comes an off week for the Bobcats, who get an extra few practices for refinements before they head to a vital three-game stretch of Sun Belt Conference games against Arkansas State, Western Kentucky and Troy to end their season. It’s very simple for the Bobcats. The more they win, the better are their bowl chances.
This past week, Texas State coach Dennis Franchione noted that football teams define themselves in November. On the first Saturday of November, Texas State defined itself as bowl eligible. There is more definition to come.
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