TLU quick to turn around

Brandon Thomas returned an interception 73 yards against Trinity (Texas), setting up the touchdown that put the Bulldogs up 42-0.
Texas Lutheran photo by Megan Sladek

As the 2009 season ended, things were as about as bad as they could get for the Texas Lutheran football program. On the field, they had finished 0-10 and coach Dennis Parker has announced his resignation. Off the field, there were some discipline issues that led to a few players being removed from the team.

Not exactly the ideal situation if you were Danny Padron, especially in your first opportunity at the college level.  The veteran San Antonio-area high school mentor was coming off tremendous success at Sandra Day O’Connor High School.

But turning around a 0-10 team in the tough America Southwest Conference, who knew how long that would take?

As it turns out, maybe it’s not as long as you would think. The Bulldogs won two of their first four games to start the season. But what really opened up some eyes, was their 42-14 victory over traditional D-III power Trinity this past Saturday. In fact, they led 42-0 by the start of the fourth quarter.

“We couldn’t have scripted it any better,” Padron said of the victory.  “We were a little shocked, we didn’t expect that. But it just about making play, Our defense came up big several times when Trinity tried to answer. We blocked a field goal, held them on fourth-and-1.”

So what has been the key to the turnaround? According to Padron you have to keep things simple.

“You concentrate on one thing at a time, one play at a time, he said. “That’s our philosophy. We have two rules: do right and do your best. And we try to hold them to that.

“We have a good mix of retired coaches and young coaches. We are used to winning. We’re pretty positive and optimistic about where we are. We look at film and realize and we not going to out coach them, so we going to have to out work them. There are some great coaches on this level that do a great job.”

That mix of young and old includes defensive coordinator George Reeve, who recorded a record of 192-37-4 on the high school level and Padron’s son Andy, who helped lead Mary Hardin-Baylor to the Stagg Bowl in 2004.

“Really, they just brought in a new attitude,” said quarter Mitchell Bunger. “They haven’t let us get real lax. Things started off rough but we’ve turned it around lately. It’s a lot of different things, just the way they talk to us and the way they treat us. The treat us like men.”

And according to Bunger, another key has been the staff’s ability to keep an open ear, which has resulted in a growing confidence.

“The thing about this coaching staff that really helps is that they listen,” said the sophomore quarterback. “During the Trinity game, there were a couple plays, where I thought it would be a good (play) call and Coach Padron trusted me. He trusted me and he went with me on it. That’s a good thing as a player, that the coach shows you the confidence to make plays and do things for him.”

Bunger is in his first year as a starter and has impressed with his ability to both run and throw the football from the Bulldogs' Florida-style spread option attack. The sophomore, who transferred from Texas A&M-Kingsville before last season, was impressive in spring practice and won the starting job during summer camp. He is especially excited to be back on the field after having to sit out last season to take enough credits to get eligible after losing some when he transferred.

That excitement has carried over onto the field. Bunger has completed 69 of 126 passes for 978 yards with eight touchdown passes, but also teams the team with 224 rushing yards and three scores. He plays the Tebow role of the Bulldogs spread set and was named to the Team of the Week presented by Scoutware this past week.

“He’s the difference.” Padron said after TLU exploded for a season-high 42 points against Trinity. “Not only is he throwing the ball well and making good decisions, he is running the ball very well.

“He made two of three plays to keep drives alive, with big-time throws and a runs. He’s been the difference for us, not question about it. If we lose him, knock on wood, we are in trouble.”

But like most good leaders, Bunger is humble when describing his talents and quick to give credit to his teammates.

“I am not very fast, but I am a smart runner,” He said. “I have decent size and when I do tuck down and run I can break tackles. Our receivers making plays is really what is helping our passing game.”

With renewed sense of enthusiasm and confidence, the Bulldogs are looking to pull a few more suprises this season. Team captain, Billy Hardee, a senior fullback, scrawled “Dare to be Great” on the locker room board the other day according to Bunger. At 2-1 in the ASC, the Bulldogs are the only conference contender left that still has unbeaten UMHB on the schedule.

“That’s the attitude that’s flying around here now,” Bunger said. “We have a chance to go in, if our heads are on right, and play ball.  We have a chance to play with anybody and beat anybody.

“Even from the beginning of the season, we felt we were a good team. We were just really young. As soon as we found time to mesh and really grow as a team, we felt we’d be able to do some things.

Still young teams experience growing pains along the way.

“It’s been a process,” Padron said of the Bulldogs 3-2 start. “Guys have come in and worked hard. We are real proud of the results, but we know we’ve got a lot more work ahead of us.

“We thought we’d win all five. That’s how we approached it. We wanted to win all five and hopefully achieve a winning season. We know we’ve got our work cut out for us, but we’ve gotten a lot better. We are always optimistic. We always see the good, so we expected to be 5-0.”

“We’re such as young team and inconsistent sometimes. That’s what showed up at Howard Payne. We won our first ball game and all the sudden we’re thinking we’re pretty good. We didn’t take care of our business and Howard Payne spanks us. That got our attention again. We’ve got our intensity again. Our defense and special teams have been carrying us and now the offense has responded and that’s really positive.”

Winning the next five will be a tough test for this young team which only returns about 30 players from last season. Texas Lutheran faces the best teams in the ASC over the next five weeks. Starting with at trip to McMurry this weekend, they then play Hardin-Simmons, Louisana College, Mississippi College and UMHB in successive weeks.

Still you get the feeling that it a challenge that the relish.

“They all have great talent and traditions but that’s not something that we can be scared of,” Bunger said. “We need to meet them head on. It’s going to be a long fight, game in and game out.”

“We’ve got an uphill climb, the best teams in the conference, we know that,” Padron said of the impending schedule. “But we are really excited about where we are right now. We’ve made great progress and have a chance to compete with them.”

And that’s really all you can ask for.

So regardless of the outcome the next five weeks, you get feeling that things have turned around at Texas Lutheran.

Games of the Week
Mary Hardin-Baylor (5-0) at Southern Oregon (2-4).
In 2008, the Crusaders traveled to the Pacific Northwest and were upset 40-28 by SOU. Though the NAIA Raiders are just 2-4, could history repeat itself? A UMHB defense that is giving up nearly 30 points and over 400 yards a game? Who’d a thunk it? Not me. Southern Oregon is averaging over 300 passing yards a game, so the Cru secondary will have its work cut out for this week. But you would think that the powerful UMHB rushing attack will thrive against a Raider unit that is allowing 185 a game on the ground. The Crusaders usually have that by halftime.

Texas Lutheran (3-2, 2-1 ASC) at McMurry (4-2, 2-2). Can the Bulldogs pull off another surprise on the road? McMurry has learned a little bit about turning things around too recently.

Trinity (2-3, 0-2 SCAC) at Sewanee (1-5, 0-3). Somebody is going to get their first SCAC win this week in a matchup of Tigers.

Adrian (2-3) at DePauw (5-0). You would think the Tigers could have an easy time a home in this nonconference match, but you could be wrong. The Bulldogs' losses are to Whitewater (35-0), Augustana (21-7) and Trine (24-16). One those games that appears to be closer than you think for the guys at Triple Take.

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