Special teams lifts Fort Hays to win
Published on -10/21/2012, 10:26 AM
By CONOR NICHOLL
Redshirt freshman Shaquille Cooper started the season as a defensive back. Senior Anthony Sheppard was the team's starting quarterback last year. This fall, Sheppard has played a variety of roles, including backup signal caller and defensive back in a difficult season.
On Saturday afternoon, Cooper and Sheppard delivered big plays in multiple phases in a wild 28-26 victory for Fort Hays State University against Lincoln (Mo.) University at Lewis Field Stadium. Because of injuries to the Tigers' top four running backs, Cooper played tailback, defensive back and special teams.
"I felt like I was on the field every play," Cooper said.
Cooper, moved to offense early in the week, finished with 13 rushes for 115 yards and a touchdown, recorded a pass breakup near the end zone and blocked a punt -- one of four blocked kicks for FHSU.
"I played offense and defense since I was little. Coach asked me to get at running back," Cooper said. "Went out there, played my heart out."
Sheppard picked up Cooper's first blocked punt in the end zone for the game's first touchdown at the 5-minute, 7-second mark of the first quarter.
With 2:26 remaining in the first quarter, sophomore defensive back Seth Klausmeyer blocked another punt and Sheppard returned it 26 yards for a score. It marked Fort Hays' first special teams/defensive touchdowns since Week 4 of the 2009 season. The Tigers also blocked an extra point and a 34-yard field goal.
"The first one, I saw the ball and I just went at it," Sheppard said. "I knew it was either me or somebody else and I wanted it. The second one, I didn't know that it got blocked. ... I saw the ball and thought, 'Oh, I got to get this now.' I just picked it up, and I just took off with it."
Fort Hays moved to 3-5, 3-5 MIAA and won back-to-back contests for the first time under second-year coach Chris Brown. Lincoln dropped to 1-7, 1-7 MIAA. Last week, the Tigers needed a game-tying touchdown with three seconds to go and then won 37-34 in overtime at Southwest Baptist (Mo.) University.
Saturday's contest remained in doubt until senior linebacker A.J. Woodall picked off a pass at the Tiger 3-yard line with 1:51 left. Cooper gained nine yards on 3rd-and-5 to seal the victory.
"A miracle," Woodall said. "I am just glad that I caught it."
The special teams plays trumped a struggling effort from the offense. Lincoln outgained Fort Hays 465-221, including 288 yards passing from sophomore quarterback Jacob Morris. The Blue Tigers committed three turnovers, including two interceptions.
"It's a style that I don't think we want, but a win is a win no matter how ugly it is," Woodall said.
Tiger junior quarterback Tarean Austin completed 6 of 15 passes for 82 yards with zero touchdowns and one interception. Plus, Fort Hays had eight penalties for 85 yards.
"Our guys did a decent job of fighting," Brown said. "We just had no intensity, no energy. We got the two blocked punts for scores, which was huge for us. If we don't have those, we don't win that ballgame. Lincoln is a very improved team."
Lincoln took a 6-0 lead on a 46-yard touchdown pass from Morris to freshman Jammell Trammell with 11:07 remaining in the first quarter. Fort Hays blocked the extra point.
Fort Hays led 21-6 at halftime following the two blocked punts and a 5-yard run from Austin. The Tigers had blocked two kicks this season and had four blocks under Brown last fall. Lincoln, though, set up in the pro-style punt where the punter receives the snap, takes a step or two forward and then kicks.
"The PATs, same thing that we have always done pressure-wise," Brown said. "The pro-style punt is something that I have always practiced against and I know a couple of things would probably work against them. We installed it this week in practice. We ran it twice and got two blocks."
On the first one, Cooper had a big hole and rushed through.
"I saw a wide-open lane," Cooper said. "I went for it."
Sheppard, who was expected to see some playing time at running back because of the injuries, had two rushes for six yards and threw an incomplete pass Saturday. Last week, Sheppard threw the last-second TD versus SBU when Austin was hurt late. This week, the blocked punts were another bright spot in a disappointing year.
"Frustrating is the best way I can put it," Sheppard said of 2012. "Always good to get (playing time). Try to help out the teammates even though things aren't going good for me. It's always good to give back to the team. It's a team effort to get the win."
In the second half, Lincoln took a 26-21 lead with 8:32 left in the third quarter. But Cooper tacked on the final score on a 63-yard run just more than six minutes later.
Brown said Cooper played on all but two of special teams plays, 20 to 30 offensive snaps and five to six defensive plays.
"I am proud of that kid," Brown said. "He worked hard this week in practice and saw things well."