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SPOTLIGHT
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Tigers' season kicks off Thursday

Published on -8/29/2012, 10:16 AM

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By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Senior captain and bandit backer Layton Hickel has noticed a trend in the Fort Hays State University-Emporia State University series. Four years ago, in Hickel's redshirt year, FHSU lost at Emporia State, 24-13, a defeat that started an eight-game losing streak.

In Hickel's redshirt freshman season, Fort Hays delivered a 40-20 victory, a win that helped FHSU finish 6-5, the first winning record since 2004.

Two falls ago, Fort Hays entered Emporia with a 3-0 record, but lost by 13 and finished 3-8.

Last season, the Tigers won in Hays in the season opener, 27-17, in a game known for turnovers. It marked FHSU coach Chris Brown's first game as a head coach in his entire career.

On Thursday, Fort Hays will look to reverse a skid when it opens the season at Emporia State's Welch Stadium. Game time is 7 p.m.

FHSU has not won in Emporia since a 16-10 victory in 2000. The Tigers (4-7, 3-6 MIAA last season) have lost five in a row against the Hornets in Emporia. The home team has won every game in the series since 2005.

"It seemed like the home team in everyone had the advantage," Hickel said. "For the most part, we've always struggled on the road before, but I think we are going to be all right on the road now, and we don't have those doubts in our mind anymore. We are just going to go out and play football."

Last year, Fort Hays allowed 516 yards of total offense to Emporia State, a team that eventually finished 5-6 overall, 3-6 MIAA. However, Emporia State fumbled four times, losing three and had an interception. Fort Hays was plus-3 in turnover margin and Korey Allison returned an interception 55 yards to set up a score.

"Things just kind of bounced our way is what I saw that day mostly," Brown said. "We were in pretty good shape and kids were pretty physical there in the fourth quarter."

ESU coach Garin Higgins, in his 11th season as a head coach and sixth with the Hornets. called the defeat "one of top three, four" tough losses that he has ever been involved in.

"You got to bring back bad memories," Higgins said when asked about the contest earlier this month at MIAA Media Day. "I just remember us turning the ball over three straight times three straight possessions and really the turning point in the game. That was a very tough loss for us. Credit Coach Brown and his staff for the things that they did for taking advantage of those turnovers and playing well."

Emporia State returns many of its key players from 2011, including senior Tyler Eckenrode, senior all-region center Lance Uhles and senior All-American free safety Derek Lohmann.

"I just remember disappointment after the game," Lohmann, who led the MIAA with eight interceptions, said. "We had big hopes for the season and especially that game. We went in overconfident and Hays just took it to us, basically."

Fort Hays has had a quarterback battle throughout the spring and fall between senior Anthony Sheppard, the returning starter, and junior Tarean Austin, a transfer from NCAA Division I University of New Mexico. The coaching staff has graded the two daily throughout camp and Brown said the staff checked grades Monday and it was "dead even." No starter is listed on the depth chart. In his weekly press conference Tuesday, Brown left it open-ended on whether both quarterbacks would play.

"It just depends. Whoever is starting, if they are not getting the job done, we will go ahead and put the other guy in," Brown said. "If we feel like the starter is doing a good job, and doing what we asked him to do and not make any stupid mistakes, we will keep him in and let him go the full haul."

Defensively, the Tigers have improved under first-year defensive coordinator Cooper Harris, last season's defensive coordinator at Washburn University.

Allison's interception return was easily the Tigers' biggest defensive play of the season -- no Tiger defensive or special teams player has scored a touchdown since 2009. Including Emporia State, FHSU allowed at least 480 yards in seven contests.

"The comfort level is just unreal right now," Hickel said. "Coach even says in meetings that we look a lot better right now than we ever did last year and it's true. You can just see guys are timing up blitzes better, they are setting the edge when they are supposed to. We are more physical. As a group, we are getting a lot better."

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