Dixie State made the most of its Division I football debut Saturday, as the underdog Trailblazers knocked off No. 22 Tarleton State 26-14 at Memorial Stadium in Stephenville, Texas, in Football Championship Subdivision action.

Never mind that the debut for Paul Peterson’s squad came nearly five months later than expected, with the global pandemic pushing the FCS season back to the spring. Even with the long break, the Trailblazers didn’t look rusty in delivering a signature win in their first contest as an FCS member after moving up from Division II last year, just like Tarleton.

“There was no magic formula or play or defense that we called today,” Dixie State coach Paul Peterson said. “Our guys got to play and they executed at a high level based on what they did, and they produced it. It’s on our kids, and they earned it.”

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Former BYU quarterback Kody Wilstead led the offensive attack, throwing for 350 yards and a touchdown while adding a 1-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that gave Dixie State a 23-7 lead.

It was the Trailblazers defense, though, that starred much of the day, holding Tarleton State to one offensive touchdown one week after the Texans offense put up 501 yards in a 43-17 romp over FBS independent New Mexico State.

“Just being able to have the guideline, saying you beat a good team when you didn’t play at your best, that’s impressive for us. We’re excited for us. It’s looking bright.” — Dixie State quarterback Kody Wilstead

The Trailblazers forced five turnovers, including three in Dixie State territory. The Trailblazers’ first touchdown of the season — a 1-yard Quali Conley run — came two plays after a Tarleton State fumble, and the Texans lost a fumble inside the Dixie State red zone on the first drive in the third quarter with the Trailblazers protecting a 17-7 lead.

“Our defense has been doing that us for us like 500 days now,” Wilstead said of the defense’s ability to force turnovers. “It was great to see them do it to someone else, honestly. We were amped.”

Tarleton State, which will face Dixie State in two weeks in St. George, put up 375 yards of offense Saturday, but Dixie State held the Texans to 6 of 16 on third down. Tarleton State reached Trailblazers territory nine times, but the Texans only scored one touchdown off those drives — capping a 71-yard drive in the second quarter with a touchdown. And even when Tarleton State scored off a 93-yard kickoff return by Kaylon Horton in the third to cut the Dixie State lead to 23-14, the Trailblazers didn’t let it phase them.

Later in the third, Tarleton State tried to convert a fourth-and-2 at the Trailblazers 38, but Steven Duncan was sacked by Isaac Fotu and Tuiits Kanosh for a 5-yard loss. Dixie State responded to the momentum shift by driving for the game’s final score, a career-long 48-yard field goal from James Baird. 

“Those nine times (with only one score), I think that’s awesome. Now we’ve just got to get a little more confidence as we’re going,” Peterson said of Dixie State’s ability to keep the Texans from capitalizing off reaching Trailblazers territory.

From there, the Trailblazers never let Tarleton State seriously threaten the Dixie State lead.

“We didn’t need to take the extra risks, trying to force balls somewhere, knowing let’s just flip the field for (the defense),” Wilstead said. “They’re playing unreal. It’s comforting to know we didn’t have to try and force anything.”

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Wilstead said the Dixie State offense could perform better, but its initial offering — 445 yards while converting 8 of 17 third downs — was more than enough in a game where the visiting Trailblazers never trailed. Wilstead’s 43-yard touchdown pass to tight end Chase Hess gave Dixie State a huge boost and a 17-7 lead with just 2:27 left until halftime. Hess finished with five catches for a game-high 96 yards.

“He just ran a route across the middle, and I knew that their safeties like to play wide, like to play the outside deep threat, so I was able to squeeze it in down the middle,” Wilstead said of his touchdown pass to Hess.

Both Wilstead and Peterson praised the effort of their young players in the game, which including freshmen Conley and Nick Floyd leading the rushing attack. Conley had 68 rushing yards — including the game-opening touchdown — and 60 receiving yards on three catches, while Floyd added 27 rushing yards as Dixie State ran for 95.

Tarleton State, meanwhile, rushed for 247 yards, but the Texans’ passing attack was largely subdued — two quarterbacks combined to complete 14 of 36 passes for 128 yards and two interceptions.

“I think they really wanted to be able to run the football, and we kept staying a little too far enough ahead of them to be patient with that and try to grind out a drive,” Peterson said.

It all set up another big test for Dixie State, which will face New Mexico State of the FBS on Sunday, March 7.

“It sets our guideline for us. Coming in, no one was really expecting us to win this game, Tarleton’s a great team. We were able to come out and play really well,” Wilstead said. “... Just being able to have the guideline, saying you beat a good team when you didn’t play at your best, that’s impressive for us. We’re excited for us. It’s looking bright.”