Former San Angelo Central High School standouts Donavyn Jackson and Braxton Webb and ex-Brady Bulldog Weston Bauer have helped give Angelo State University's run to the NCAA Division II quarterfinals little bit of a West Texas flavor.
ASU (11-2) will meet Colorado School of Mines (11-1) in a national quarterfinal matchup at 1 p.m. CST Saturday in Golden, Colorado. Radio coverage from Marv Kay Stadium at Campbell Field will be on KWFR 101.9-FM and it will be televised on the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) Network.
The Rams advanced to the Elite Eight after shutting down No. 21 Nebraska-Kearney 20-7 at home last week in a second-round matchup that pushed their winning streak to seven games.
ASU is looking to reach the semifinals for the first time since 1989.
CSM knocked off Bemidji State 55-6 at home last week. The Orediggers are on a four-game winning streak and they're 7-0 at home.
The winner of Saturday's game will face either Ferris State or Northwest Missouri State in the semifinals next week.
ASU's defense did a remarkable job of shutting down Kearney quarterback TJ Davis, a Harlon Hill candidate. The dual-threat QB was limited to 9 of 22 passing for 86 yards and 16 carries for 12 yards, including four sacks.
"It was long nights up here with the defensive staff putting together a great game plan," ASU head coach Jeff Girsch said. "But give them credit, our kids went out there and executed to the T and made sure we did exactly what we had to do to win a football game."
Alfred Grear's 63-yard touchdown run and two field goals by Asa Fuller gave the Rams a 13-0 edge at the half. Grear, just a sophomore, had 16 carries for a game-high 152 yards on the ground and one TD.
Rams junior QB Zach Bronkhorst connected of 15 of 30 passes for 172 yards and a 5-yard TD toss to tight end Dagen Dunham that made it 20-0 ASU early in the third quarter.
After cutting the margin to 20-7 later in the third, the Lopers were driving to potentially get within one score in the fourth when Bauer made a pivotal play.
Ex-Bulldog taking a bite out of the competition
After Kearney drove down to ASU's 26-yard line on its final possession last week, Bauer came up huge with a 9-yard QB sack on Davis that made it 2nd-and-19 from the 35. Three plays later, the Rams took over and ran out the clock.
"I was ecstatic," said Bauer, a 6-foot-1, 263-pound defensive end who went to high school 77 miles southeast of San Angelo in Brady. "It's just one of those plays that you practice for and prepare for all week, and you finally make that play and it's the best feeling that you can have."
A year after ASU's schedule was cut to four games that were scheduled on the fly simply to ensure the Rams would get to play some football during the pandemic, it's been a fun ride in 2021.
"This has been everything I could dream of," Bauer said. "I couldn't ask for much else. Hopefully this isn't going to be the end of the road for us. It's what I've been dreaming of since I was little."
Bauer's little brother, Walker Bauer, is a redshirt freshman for the Rams who plays some on special teams.
"It's awesome being able to practice with him," the older sibling said. "It's not something that most players get to do."
Weston talked about what it mean to reach the equivalence of DII football's Final Four with a win against Mines this week.
"That would be huge for us as a program and for me personally," the junior defensive tackle said. "My dad (Welman Bauer, who also was a DT) was on the team when they made it to the semifinals the last time here as a program (in 1989).
"It's something that he's talked about his whole life and that I'd be able to experience myself."
Former Bobcat Jackson savors deep playoff run
The Rams' 6-1, 196-pound senior linebacker is the team's seventh-leading tackler in 2021. He's been in on 37 total tackles, including 23 solos.
The Central High graduate returned a fumble 19 yards for a touchdown in the regular-season finale on the road against Texas A&M-Kingsville.
He's played a key role for a Rams defense that is currently playing lights out. ASU has held its first two playoff opponents to a combined 21 points.
It's been a magical journey for the Rams' senior LB.
"Man, we love it," Jackson said. "Since I've been here since 2016, we've been working our tails off. And now five years later to see us reaping the benefits, all the seniors love it."
The Rams have really had a swagger since beating Texas A&M-Commerce 30-3 at home four weeks ago. That snapped a six-game losing streak against the Lions, dating back to 2014 when ASU last made the playoffs.
"We've just been rolling since then," Jackson said. "We're just trying to keep it going each and every week and get better each and every week.
"I don't know about these other guys, but I'm not satisfied with these past two wins. I feel like we were supposed to do that. Going into these next games, we've just got to keep rolling and keep taking it higher and higher."
Echoing thoughts of his head coach and defensive teammates, Jackson says Rams defensive coordinator Adam Clark knows the winning formula for the right game plan each week.
"I know the other 10 people on the field, we've got trust in each other and there's five or six seniors," Jackson said. "We've been playing for a long time, so the camaraderie and the friendship and the love between us, we're going to have faith in each other and we're just going to go out there and ball like it's our last game."
Last week, former Rams standouts like record-setting QB Kyle Washington and running back Trey Green, among others, were on the sidelines cheering on their alma mater.
"They were just giving us good luck and telling us to keep rolling," Jackson said. "The sky's the limit. I'm just glad those guys (from the 2014 team) laid a foundation for us, you know what I'm saying?
"It started back then and it carried over to 2021, finally, seven years later. All we can do is pay our respects and make those dudes proud for what they started back then."
Jackson has poured sweat, blood and tears into his Rams career, and it's all been worth it.
"I love the coaches here, from the (graduate assistants) to coach Girsch," the ex-Bobcat said. "When I first got here, coach Girsch was the defensive coordinator, so he was more hands on with me.
"Now, he's the head coach, but he still comes around and shows love to all the players. I just love the staff here. I love the energy and I love the environment."
Ex-Central, SMU lineman Webb makes big impact
Webb is a 6-5, 310-pound offensive lineman who played the majority of his career at the Division I level at SMU.
With everything that was going on at the time and not being happy with the amount of playing time he got, the former Bobcat standout got the itch to return home and transferred to ASU last fall.
The ex-Pony made an immediate impact, starting in all four of the Rams' games in the shortened 2020 campaign.
ASU had the No. 1 offense in the Lone Star Conference this season, and Webb has done his part.
And now the Rams are one of eight teams still standing in the DII ranks.
"It's been a ride, I'll say that," the former Bobcats lineman said. "I'm glad to spend my last college football season with this team and make a run for history here at Angelo State, like they haven't done in a very long time.
"I'm just very proud of this team. We're focused on one game at a time and going 1-0 every week. It's Colorado School of Mines this week and hopefully it'll go on to the next round."
The Rams' offense keeps defenses guessing with how balanced they are running and throwing the ball.
You can't do that without a great O-line.
"I would say we're one of the top offensive lines in Division II football, especially with four of the five having all-conference honors and one of them kind of being snubbed," Webb said.
"We're a really good bunch up front and it shows with this seven-game win streak we've got going right now."
Jackson and Webb aren't the only former Central players on ASU's roster.
Senior wide receiver Thomas Aych, whose father, Theron, is a former offensive coordinator and current inside wide receivers coach at UTEP, is also on the squad.
Scouting the Orediggers
Looking ahead to Saturday's showdown in Colorado, the Rams will be facing an Orediggers offense that likes to mix things up as well with its running and passing games, but tends to put it in the air a little bit more.
"They've got a quarterback (junior John Matocha) that I think has thrown for about 2,500 yards. He has a 70% completion rate and does a good job with it.
"He can run with it, too. I think he's their second- or third-leading rusher, so he has some good feet. He's a dual threat. Their running back (redshirt senior Michael Zeman) I think he's over 1,300 rushing. They like to run the football, but they can throw it, too, so we'll have our hands full with that."
Mines has averaged just under 40 points per game, while holding its opponents to an average of just over 12.
The altitude in Colorado isn't something the Rams are accustomed to, but Girsch doesn't think that'll be a factor.
"Our kids are excited to play, and I don't think it'll have much of an effect on them," the Rams coach said.
Regardless of what happens against the Orediggers, it's already been a season to remember for the Rams.
In case you're wondering, ASU's only national title in football was an NAIA championship in 1978.
"Angelo State has had a great history of football and in all athletics," Girsch said. "Being mentioned with those (great teams of the past) is great, but we feel like we have some unfinished business still and this team is good enough to win some more games and keep doing that.
"To be put in that category with the teams in the past here at Angelo State is a true honor, but I'm so proud of these guys. These guys have bought in to what we've talked about. When I started recruiting the guys who are young in the program and the guys who were here when I took over, we told them the day is coming when we're going to be playing in games like this."
This article originally appeared on San Angelo Standard-Times: Angelo State football set for national quarterfinal at Colorado Mines