Tigers continue through tough early stretch
Published on -9/19/2012, 9:50 AM
By NICK McQUEEN
This season, like most, is a grueling grind through the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association for the Fort Hays State University football team.
Year in and year out, the MIAA is in the upper tier of Division II.
Unlike most years, though, the schedule for the Tigers is heavy at the front -- loaded with ranked team after ranked team.
The only of the top five MIAA teams the Tigers will not have played in the first five weeks is top-ranked Pittsburg State University, not on the schedule this season in the new 15-team format.
Still, in the first three weeks, the Tigers have played Emporia State (leading the MIAA), Washburn (ranked No. 9 in Division II), and perennial powerhouse Northwest Missouri State University (ranked No. 12).
It's led to a punishing 0-3 start to the season, but second-year coach Chris Brown said his squad, while frustrated, has bounced back each time. The Tigers had one of their better practices Tuesday, following a 48-10 loss to the Bearcats on Saturday. Now, Fort Hays will get its third straight ranked opponent in No. 7 Missouri Western State University this week.
"Our kids are frustrated," Brown said in his weekly news conference Tuesday. "They're not happy about what's going on right now, which is good. They want to get better."
By better, Brown means getting to the point where Fort Hays can annually compete with the MIAA's top teams, something that hasn't happened since the Tigers switched conferences.
"We had a great practice today," Brown added. "They are enthusiastic and ready to go. It's 'Let's see where we go from here, get better each week, and just compete every day in practice and get better.' "
The strength of schedule ranks as the second toughest in the nation behind new MIAA member University of Nebraska-Kearney, according to masseyratings.com. The Lopers have opened the season with losses to Washburn, Emporia State and Missouri Western, and get Northwest Missouri in Kearney this weekend for homecoming.
"(We have) a pretty good team," Brown said. "You just have to look at the opponents we're playing right now.
"We're playing opponents this year that are pretty tough, where last year we had a few games where we were at that level, and we're just not at the level we need to be at right now."
With injuries taking a toll on the Tigers' depth, several young players have had to step into more prominent roles -- namely at the running back position with true freshman Addie Brown. The Denver native made his first start Saturday against Northwest Missouri in Maryville, Mo., rushing for 74 yards and the Tigers' lone TD in the losing effort.
"I came in here working hard to compete," Addie Brown said. "I was expecting to redshirt -- get another year of experience and learn the offense. Unfortunately, we lost two great backs.
"I just had to step in," he added.
The two incumbents at the position, seniors Andre Smith and Ed Smith suffered injuries in the first two weeks and their status is still unclear.
So far, though, Addie Brown has been a bright spot in an offense that has struggled to get rolling. The Tigers have put up just six points in the first half all season -- coming on a pair of field goals from true freshman Drew O'Brien.
Part of the reason for the struggles is the Tigers' effectiveness in early downs, leading to a 36-percent conversion rate on third down.
"The biggest obstacle is the tempo," Addie Brown said. "First and second down isn't a take-off play, and we get it going on third down. We have to come out strong and fast on first and second."
Fort Hays has run less than half as many plays as its first three opponents, being outscored 93-6 in the first half. Northwest Missouri outgained the Tigers 543-223 Saturday.
Coach Brown said much of that offense will start to come around as soon as junior quarterback Taraen Austin can put the effectiveness he's shown in practice into game mode. The transfer from the University of New Mexico, has completed just 41 percent (30 of 73) of his passes for 319 yards and a pair of scores.
"He's making the throws and making the reads (in practice)," coach Brown said. "He just has to put that over into game time. Once he does that, he's going to be a very good player.
"He's very accurate in practice and makes some good reads and makes good checks," Brown added. "He runs the ball well and throws it on the money. We just have to carry over to game time."
Saturday's 7 p.m. contest at Lewis Field Stadium for the annual TailGreat event will be against a loaded Griffons' team that rallied in a rout last season in Hays after an early Tiger lead. Missouri Western won 55-17, its seventh straight win in the series.
Fort Hays will seek its first win against a ranked opponent since 2008 when the Tigers defeated Washburn, 17-7.