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Texas Lutheran finishes second in ASC with 57-14 victory over McMurry

Ian Leslie (photo by Dustin Wyatt)
Ian Leslie (photo by Dustin Wyatt)
SEGUIN, Texas -- Texas Lutheran completed its best-ever season in the American Southwest Conference with a 57-14 home win Saturday over McMurry that secured a solo second-place finish for the Bulldogs in arguably the toughest NCAA Division III football conference in America.
 
On Senior Day at Bulldog Stadium, TLU (with its 14 senior football players) won its eighth game of the season, improving to 8-2 overall and to 8-1 in the ASC. McMurry fell to 0-10 overall and to 0-9 in the ASC in Head Coach Jordan Neal's first season with the War Hawks.
 
"The leadership that our seniors have provided, not just this year, our team has seen that we have made positive steps these past few years mainly because of those seniors," said Carl Gustafson, TLU's third-year head coach. "Their leadership, their resolve, their work ethic, they take care of the young guys - I think our team wanted to play well today to pay tribute to the seniors, and I think we did."
 
Regionally-ranked and occasionally nationally-ranked this season, the Bulldogs are on the bubble for an at-large berth into the NCAA Division III Football Championship. It is rare for two-loss teams to advance to the national playoffs in DIII if they are not already recipients of an automatic berth into the playoffs.
 
TLU lost the conference championship to Mary Hardin-Baylor when UMHB defeated TLU 41-3 last Saturday in Belton. TLU's only other loss of 2019 came in the season-opener, a 26-23 setback to Hendrix (Ark.) in Seguin on Sept. 14.
 
"In our opening loss we were trying to find our team, and we were playing lots of people," said Gustafson. "If Hendrix wins today, they end up 7-3, and then our only other loss is to the team that is ranked I guess No. 1 or 2, depending on what poll you are looking at, in the country."
 
"This conference is arguably the toughest in the country in Division III from top to bottom. And the only blemish we had is to the defending national champions. These young men deserve to be in the playoffs."
 
TLU will learn its NCAA playoff fate at 4:30 p.m. central Sunday, when the NCAA football bracket is released. The NCAA DIII Football Championship Selection Show on ncaa.com.
 
The Bulldogs did their best Saturday against McMurry to make a case for a playoff bid. TLU dominated both lines of scrimmage by rushing for 387 yards and seven TDs and collecting nine tackles for loss (including five sacks).
 
TLU's seven rushing touchdowns was one shy of the school record of eight, set in 1998 against Southwestern Assemblies of God University.
 
Senior running back Ian Leslie (San Antonio/Reagan) celebrated Senior Day with 130 rushing yards and a career-best three touchdowns on 16 carries. Leslie scored on a pair of 1-yard runs and had a 13-yard touchdown scamper in the third quarter.
 
Leslie and most of his 13 senior teammates were a part of TLU's 2-8 season in 2016.
 
Since that year, starting with the Carl Gustafson hiring in November of 2016, the Bulldogs have gone 21-9 with records of 6-4, 7-3, and 8-2. The Bulldogs finished third in the ASC in 2017 and 2018 and now have a runner-up conference finish."
 
"To see the success today, I couldn't ask for a better season," said Leslie, who missed all but one game last season with a leg injury. "Missing that last year, who knows what could have happened if everyone was healthy. I wasn't the only one that was hurt. Going out with the success that we had, going from 2-8 to 8-2, is something that I couldn't have asked for."
 
"I think us going through that 2-8 trial made that bond what we have today. Again, we are flipping it from 2-8 to 8-2. We had to grow together. We came in together. I'm sure after that first year everybody was like, "What's going on?" But once we got that new culture in, we took it upon ourselves to do that extra work in the summer. Again, going from 2-8 to 8-2, you pretty much don't hear about that in three or four years. I think this class is pretty special."
 
Leslie's fellow senior running back Austin Mathews (Houston/Clear Creek) also went over the 100-yard mark Saturday. Mathews rushed for 116 yards on 17 carries and scored on a pair of six-yard TD runs. Mathews finished his Bulldog career with 26 rushing TDs in 33 games played. He rushed for 1,999 yards on 355 carries, averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
 
Sophomore quarterback Wade Freeman (Richmond/Bush) rushed for a career-high 127 yards on only 11 carries. He averaged 11.5 yards per carry, and he scored on a three-yard rush on the Bulldogs' opening drive.
 
The Bulldogs led 37-7 at the half. TLU scored just before the half on a 29-yard scoring strike from Freeman to senior Charles Robinson Jr. (Frisco/Wakeland). Robinson caught five passes for 75 yards.
 
Sam Guzman (Buda/Hays) led TLU in total tackles, with 11. He had a half-sack and a tackle for loss. Brandon Bennett (Harlingen/Harlingen South) added nine total tackles, including one sack and 1.5 tackles for loss.
 
The fourteen Bulldog seniors playing in their last home game were: Mathews, Leslie, Robinson, defensive end Manny Longoria (Geronimo/Navarro), linebacker Derek Dunn (Houston/North Shore), cornerback Kedrick Ward (Missouri City/Elkins), offensive lineman Coy Tutt (Wylie/Wylie East), offensive lineman Cameron Maha (La Vernia/La Vernia), offensive lineman Travis York (Seguin/Seguin), offensive lineman Garrett Garza (Round Rock/Stony Point), offensive lineman Andrew Lotz (New Orleans, La./The Colony (Texas)), linebacker Adairius Norwood (Waco/Waco), receiver CJ Romero (Odem/Odem), and offensive lineman Benjamin Rodriguez (McAllen/Rowe).