WARRENSBURG, Mo. — Mules aren’t typically known for their speed, but the ones from Central Missouri had no problem striking fast against the visiting Fort Hays State University football team Thursday at Walton Stadium/Kennedy Field.
The hot start led to a 34-17 victory for the host No. 16-ranked Mules.
UCM needed just four plays to score on each of its first two drives, and took a 14-0 lead with 8:47 left in the first quarter.
First, it was UCM quarterback Garrett Fugate connecting with junior Jaylen Zachery on a 58-yard pass less than three minutes into the game.
Then roughly three minutes later, the deadly Mule duo connected on another 13-yard score.
The second score was set up by consecutive first-down receptions by Kyle Echols.
“You can’t start off the game giving up two big plays that result in getting touchdowns. That just kills you,” FHSU head coach Chris Brown said. “You can’t do that. You can’t start off that way.”
Both scores came after the Tigers failed to pick up a first down on their first two drives. FHSU’s starting quarterback, Jacob Mezera, was sacked on both third-down plays, two of five UCM sacks in the game.
“I just don’t think that we came out and did the things that we wanted to do early on,” FHSU senior guard Chico Feltenberger said. “We got behind a little bit and we just couldn’t catch back up offensively. That’s definitely not the product we want to put on the field.”
The Tigers used the rest of the half to get back in it. The teams exchanged punts on four consecutive drives before the Tiger offense established any rhythm. The Tigers faked a wide receiver screen — a play that UCM consistently had sniffed out early — and Mezera found Bacon over the middle for a big first down to get to the UCM 41-yard line. Back-to-back rushes from redshirt freshman running back Malik Thomas netted another set of downs. His next carry resulted in a fumble and UCM recovery, but a Tiger jarred the ball free during the return to give the Tigers a second chance.
After Mezera and Shaq Cooper connected on a completion to the UCM 5, Thomas cashed in on his second chance from the 3 to make it 14-7 early in the second quarter.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, that was as close as it would ever get despite multiple chances to make it interesting.
Redshirt freshman Tanner Hoekman recovered a fumble and intercepted Fugate in the second quarter to keep the Tigers in the game.
“We started to figure it out in the second quarter, but we obviously didn’t finish the game because they were able to tack on more points,” senior linebacker Alex Schmidtberger said.
The only score the rest of the first half was a 23-yard Billy Greco field goal that made it 17-7 with nearly nine minutes before the half. The Tigers brief defensive success came from dropping safeties deeper and letting Hoekman, Connor Shedeed and DeAndre James make plays.
“Once we did that, we settled down a little bit and made them earn things a little bit more,” Brown said.
The Tigers again had a chance to get closer after stopping the Mules on their first drive of the second half, but Mezera was again sacked on third down to end a drive. The Mules appeared to send a number of blitzes from different angles, more blitzes than the Tigers remember seeing a year ago.
“We’ve seen more blitzes than we did the first two games last year. I think Central Mo did a really good job of figuring out when they needed to blitz,” Feltenberger said.
“On the field, you could just feel they were bringing pressure a lot more often that we thought, and it hurt us.”
UCM senior running back Gabe Vandiver capped the ensuing drive with a 9-yard score that made it 24-7.
Mezera was then intercepted by Mule sophomore Dylan Albertson on the Tigers second play of the next drive. Mezera finished 15-of-28 for 141 yards and one interception. It wasn’t helped by a rushing attack that totaled just 82 yards on 34 carries. Cooper led the Tigers with 63 yards on 12 carries.
The Tiger head coach was not pleased with his offense’s physicality.
“We’re going to fix that this week. We’re going to go in there and get after them. We’re going to play more physical in practice,” Brown said.
“That’s not the product we want to put on the field.”
The teams again exchanged punts before Xavier Washpun made it 31-7 with a 20-yard rushing touchdown late in the third quarter.
FHSU responded with its third and final scoring drive. Junior TJ Thomas finished the drive with a 7-yard touchdown on his first carry of the season.
Greco capped the scoring with a 26-yard field goal in the final minute. In concluded a poor performance from the Tigers.
“We did not perform very well at all,” Brown said. “Offensively, defensively it was just terrible.”
One of the few highlights came elsewhere.
“Special teams did a pretty good job of pinning them deep on kickoffs. Brandon did a good job of making his field goals,” Brown said. “Other than that, we didn’t do much on either side of the ball.”
Fugate finished the game 26-of-39 for 306 yards and two scores. Zachery was his favorite target, totaling 106 yards on six catches and two scores.
FHSU appeared in position to knock down a number of those completions but failed to complete the play.
“He puts the ball in the right place for his receivers, but a lot of his big completions were from man coverage,” Schmidtberger said. “Our guys were in the position to make the play, but they just weren’t just getting their heads around to deflect the pass.”
UCM totaled 514 yards to the Tigers’ 223 and owned a 10-minute advantage in time of possession. The Mules converted 10 of their 18 opportunities on third down, while FHSU went just 2-of-12.
“We gotta get off the field on third down,” Schmidtberger said. “That’s the biggest issue.”
After the Tigers get a couple days off the field to review tape and reassess, they’ll move on to a home date with Central Oklahoma a week from Saturday. The idea is that it will be far from what was displayed Thursday in Warrensburg on both sides of the ball.
“We better look in the mirror and reevaluate. This is not the product we need,” Feltenberger said.
“It’s going to get changed. We’re going to come out next Saturday, we’re going to change it and get back on track.”