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Big game for Tigers on homecoming

Published on -10/5/2012, 10:25 AM

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Senior guard Hawk Rouse, a four-year starter and captain on the Fort Hays State University football team, has seen one winning season in his career, a 6-5 record in 2009. The Tigers haven't won more than six contests in a season since 1996. The program hasn't reached the playoffs or a bowl game since 1995. Fort Hays hasn't won back-to-back games since the first three weeks of the 2010 season.

Rouse understands all those streaks could be in play when the Tigers (1-4, 1-4 MIAA) play host to conference newcomer Lindenwood (Mo.) University (4-1, 3-1) in the annual homecoming game. Game time is 7 p.m. at Lewis Field Stadium in a contest that has massive ramifications for Fort Hays' season.

"A win Saturday will (give) us a great opportunity into having a winning season or maybe even being undefeated the rest of the year," Rouse said. "This Saturday, it all depends on how we come out and how we execute."

Fort Hays opened the year with four losses to teams that are currently ranked in the top-25 nationally. However, the Tigers bounced back with a 37-23 road victory against Truman State (Mo.) University, a 3-2 team. A victory against Lindenwood, formerly an NAIA power, would give the Tigers another quality victory that could be a tiebreaker at the end of the fall.

After this week, Fort Hays faces three struggling teams in Southwest Baptist (Mo.) University, Lincoln (Mo.) University and South Dakota School of Mines.

Those squads have combined for two wins. Then, FHSU finishes with a home game against University of Central Missouri, receiving votes nationally, and a road game at rival University of Nebraska-Kearney, currently 0-5.

Two of the last three home games against Central Missouri have been decided by three points. Seven straight wins is possible, which would secure a winning season and could produce a bowl bid. However, it all starts against Lindenwood and its explosive pass-heavy spread offense.

"It's huge," second-year coach Chris Brown said. "We want to win this game more than anything."

Lindenwood coach Patrick Ross, in his ninth season with the program, has a career record of 78-23 with the Lions. He led Lindenwood, located in St. Charles, just outside of St. Louis, to five NAIA playoff appearances, including the national championship game in 2009. This is the first meeting between the two schools.

"I had never heard of Lindenwood before this year, simple to the fact that I don't follow NAIA," Rouse said. "Seeing them come in and then having heard of what they did in their division, it's not a surprise to me that they are sitting 4-1 right now."

Lindenwood has delivered impressive numbers against a much weaker schedule than the Tigers. The Lions haven't played a road game since Week 1. Masseyratings.com has Fort Hays playing the nation's No. 2 hardest schedule, Lindenwood at No. 53. The site ranks the Lions as the nation's No. 38-best Division II team, Fort Hays at No. 55.

Junior quarterback Ben Gomez is the reigning MIAA Offensive Player of the Week after he passed for 480 yards and six scores in a 49-28 victory last week against University of Nebraska-Kearney.

He broke a school record for passing yards and tied a conference mark for TD passes. Senior wideout Andrew Helmick, a pro prospect, set a school record with 200 receiving yards, all in the first half.

Lindenwood uses four and five wideouts virtually all the time and leads the conference in passing yards at 340 a game and averages 38 points per contest.

FHSU senior bandit backer Layton Hickel, the current conference Defensive Player of the Week, said the Tigers normally practice against a balance of run and pass during the week. It's different in preparing for the Lions.

"Concentrating more on the pass and what are responsibilities are and coverages," Hickel said. "It's just more mental, I guess, knowing where you've got to fit up and who you got."

Brown said the Tigers won't be able to run a four-front as frequently as they normally do because of Lindenwood's spread. Fort Hays, second to last in the 15-team MIAA in passing yards allowed per game at 295 yards per contest, is likely to often have a three-front with occasional blitzing.

"Lot of speed," Brown said. "Keep everything in front and not give up the deep ball."

Senior Anthony Sheppard, the starting quarterback most of last year and this fall's season opener, has moved to defensive back. Sheppard has played sparingly on defense, but expects to see more time Saturday because of his speed and athleticism.

"Need to find a way to get him in the ballgame," Brown said.

Offensively, Brown wants to control the clock with a rushing offense that stands seventh in the league in rushing yards (173.6 a game) but is tied for second in yards per carry (4.8). A ball control attack could help FHSU collect a big victory.

"Saturday is going to be the momentum that drives the rest of the season, I believe," Rouse said.

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