It’s been a season of firsts for the UTPB football team.
2023 has featured the first winning record (not including the spring 2021 season) in program history, the first Lone Star Conference title in school history and the first NCAA Division II Playoff appearance in history.
Not only that, but the Falcons get to host a playoff game for the first time in program history.
UTPB (10-1) will face Bemidji State (8-2)-also for the first time in program history-at 1 p.m. Saturday at Astound Broadband Stadium in Midland.
First-year UTPB head coach Kris McCullough — who was named the Lone Star Conference Coach of the Year this week — is thankful that his team gets to play another week after beating Central Washington 42-14 last week to clinch the conference title.
“Hopefully, we can attack and see how far we can go. I’m proud of our team for starting fast this past week against Central Washington,” McCullough said. “We started off 14-0 but then sputtered. But our defense played well throughout the game. Jeremiah Cooley cemented himself as the best receiver in the country. … Our quarterback had a heck of a game. At the end of the day, it was an awesome offensive and defensive performance.”
>> HALFTIME MOMENTUM: UTPB got the start it wanted, until it didn’t.
After taking a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, Central Washington scored two unanswered touchdowns to tie everything up at the half.
McCullough had a simple message at halftime.
“We had all the momentum, then they scored back-to-back touchdowns,” McCullough said. “We could hear all (Central Washington’s) 32 fans yelling and celebrating because they had all the momentum. But the halftime message was we gave them those 14 points. We knew we were better. We went out and proved our point in the second half.”
The Falcons did just that in the second half, scoring 21 points in the third quarter and adding a touchdown in the fourth.
>> FINALLY, SOME LOVE: For the last two years, the Lone Star Conference has only had one member selected in the NCAA Division II playoffs with only Angelo State getting in both times.
In 2021, Angelo State got in the playoffs despite not winning the conference as LSC champion Midwestern State was shunned and left to play in a bowl game as a consolation prize.
Last year, no other team from the Lone Star Conference (besides ASU) got in the playoffs.
This year, LSC fans can put down the pitch forks as the conference will be better represented in the playoffs with UTPB and Central Washington both getting in.
Central Washington will face No. 2 seed Western Colorado in Gunnison, Colo. at 2 p.m. Saturday in the first round of the playoffs.
>> THE REST OF THE REGION: Colorado School of Mines is the No. 1 seed from Region Four and is rewarded with a first-round bye.
Augustana will face Minnesota State-Mankato in the other playoff first-round game.
The winner of UTPB-Bemidji State will face the winner of Western Colorado-Central Washington (both of which have already played the Falcons this season).
>> BEMIDJI STATE: The Beavers come in from the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
It’s a team that’s no stranger to the NCAA Division II playoffs.
Last year, the Beavers defeated Winona State in the first round before losing to Angelo State, 33-7, in the second round.
In 2021, Bemidji State also made it to the second round before losing to Colorado School of Mines, 55-6.
This year’s team is led on offense by quarterback Brandon Alt.
“We’re looking forward to Bemidji State,” McCullough said. “They’re a heck of a team. There’s a reason they’ve been in the playoffs in the last two years. They’ll have the best quarterback we’ve faced all year. He’s a stud. They’ll have the best receiving corps we’ve faced all year. Luckily, our defense has been playing well.”
>> FUEL FOR THE FIRE: When the Lone State Conference Media Day was held back in July, the Falcons were picked to finish seventh.
That only served as more motivation for this year’s team.
“At the start of media day, getting picked seventh only added fuel to the fire,” McCullough said. “We didn’t know how good we were going to be. You never do until you start playing in adverse situations. We were down by 18 against Western Colorado and then we fought back against West Texas A&M and won. Those two games told me all that I needed to know about my team in that we’ll always find a way to battle back. I’m proud of my guys. It’s pretty special to play in and host the playoffs.”