Junior quarterback Harrison Stewart connected on a 25-yard touchdown pass to Hayden Marsh on fourth and 13 with 3:06 remaining, then Tarleton State's potential game-winning field goal attempt sailed wide right as Texas A&M University-Commerce upset the 23rd-ranked Texans 22-20.
It marks the Lions second victory over a ranked opponent this season following the 45-37 win over 25th-ranked Delta State University as A&M-Commerce hands Tarleton State its first Lone Star Conference loss of the season.
With the victory, A&M-Commerce gains possession of the President's Trophy for the first time in its four-year existence. The Lions also guaranteed themselves the program's first winning season since 2001, notching their fourth-straight win in the process.
"This was a complete team victory" said head coach Colby Carthel. "To see these guys play for each other and never give up was something very special. This team continues to improve and fight through tough times, and it paid off tonight. What a great win for the program."
Stewart completed 24 of his 35 passes on the night for 279 yards and a pair of touchdown strikes while junior Deric Davis also launched a 27-yard touchdown pass, completing his only throw of the night. Junior wide receiver Vernon Johnson notched his fifth 100-yard receiving game of the season, pulling in seven catches for 154 yards and a pair of touchdowns with Jordon Jenkins (32 yards), Seth Smith (27 yards) and Ki-Janaven Garrett (27 yards) each pulling in four passes.
Garrett led the Lions on the ground once again, just missing his second consecutive 100-yard rushing game by racking up 97 yards on 18 carries.
Tarleton State held the edge in total offense, racking up 491 yards compared to 409 for the Lions. The Texans also held a major edge in third down conversions, completing 10 out of 21 on the night while A&M-Commerce was successful just twice on 12 attempts. However the Lions were two-for-two on fourth down conversions, both of which came on the final touchdown drive.
Defensively, senior Stephen Ford led the way with a career-high 13 tackles, including seven solo. Sophomore Cole Pitts added nine with Traven Johnson finishing with eight and Marcus Fore adding seven to help pace the Lions.
After opening up the game by exchanging possessions, Tarleton State struck first, stringing together a 15-play, 87-yard drive which resulted in a two-yard touchdown scamper. The Texans dominated time of possession in the opening quarter, holding the ball for 10 minutes and running 27 plays, compared to just nine plays over five minutes for A&M-Commerce.
But as the second quarter commenced, the Lions opened up with a bang as Stewart connected with Johnson for an 88-yard touchdown strike as Johnson hauled in the pass around midfield and raced untouched into the end zone to tie the game at seven. It was a career-long reception for Johnson as he notched his third touchdown of 75-or-more yards on the season.
After the Texans responded with a 26-yard field goal to reclaim the lead at 10-7, A&M-Commerce put together an impressive drive of its own. The Lions drove 75 yards over seven plays which ended when Deric Davis hit Johnson in the back of the endzone from 27-yards out as A&M-Commerce took the lead 14-10.
Tarleton State would answer on its ensuing drive, however, converting a handful of third down conversions as the Texans moved 83 yards over eight plays, reclaiming the lead 17-14 off a 10-yard touchdown run – a lead they would take into the half.
A&M-Commerce's defense stepped up early in the third, thwarting the Texan offensive attack. After pinning Tarleton State deep in its own territory, Fields broke free on a punt return and returned it 60 yards, only to have it called back due to a block in the back penalty. That penalty proved costly as two plays later the Texans picked off a Stewart pass, then knocked through a 22-yard field goal on the ensuing drive to extend their lead to 20-14.
The Lions had another chance to trim the deficit late in the third quarter, driving down near the 20-yard line. But after the drive stalled, Martinez's 38-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright and then the crossbar before falling to the turf, keeping the score at 20-14.
Early in the fourth, A&M-Commerce dodged a Texan bullet as Brandon Turner blocked a 46-yard field goal attempt by Tarleton State, keeping the Lions within one score. The Texans had another chance to extend the lead to two scores later in the quarter, but the field goal attempt hit the same upright as Martinez's attempt to keep the Lions within six.
With just over six minutes remaining, A&M-Commerce reclaimed possession looking to take the lead. The Lions would drive 80 yards in 13 plays as the drive was kept alive by a roughing the punter call and a pair of huge fourth down conversions. The second of those fourth down conversions was a 25-yard pass from Stewart to Marsh, tying the game at 20-20. After a botched snap on the two point conversion, Fore scrambled to the corner of the end zone, diving past the pylon to put the Lions on top 22-20 with 3:06 remaining.
Tarleton State would move the ball down the field as the Texans jockeyed into position for the potential game-winning field goal attempt. But from 39 yards out, the attempt sailed wide right as the Lions rushed for a game-clinching first down, securing A&M-Commerce's first win over Tarleton State since 2006 and the first victory in Stephenville since 1996.
A&M-Commerce closes the gap in the all-time series as Tarleton State still holds an 11-10 lead. It also marks the first time in the history of the program that the Lions are in possession of both the Chennault Cup (A&M-Kingsville) and President's Trophy (Tarleton State) at the same time.
The Lions now enter the home stretch of the 2013 season with two home games over the final three weekends of the season. Up first is a Homecoming date with Angelo State on Saturday, Nov. 2. A&M-Commerce is 3-0 in Homecoming games this season, having played the spoiler for Southeastern Oklahoma, Texas A&M-Kingsville and Tarleton State. Opening kick against the Rams is set for 2 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.