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Field position key in Tigers' loss

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

The punting game provided a big difference in Fort Hays State University's 14-12 loss to University of Central Missouri on Saturday at Lewis Field Stadium. Central Missouri senior punter Matt Jordan entered the game ranked sixth in NCAA Division II in net punting and pinned the Tigers deep several times.

Fort Hays had to start drives at its 16-, 1-, 5-, 20- and 10-yard lines after punts. The long drives helped keep the Tigers from a winning season. FHSU is 4-6, 3-6 MIAA with one game left, a road game next weekend at University of Nebraska-Kearney.

Central Missouri finished the year at 6-4, 6-4 MIAA.

"I told our kids, 'We've got to get to the block point, and we've got to catch the punts, because he does a good job of pinning guys inside the 20,' " second-year coach Chris Brown said. "He has done it all year long. He is excellent at it."

Fort Hays' average starting field position was its own 23-yard line, while Central Missouri's average starting field position was its own 37. Fort Hays delivered 381 yards of total offense, but averaged 31.8 yards per point, an inefficient offense. This season, FHSU has tallied 15.3 yards per point.

"When you look at your odds of starting your drive inside the 10, it's not very good," Brown said. "But we've still got to fight back and get first downs. We talk about 'first down, first down,' and get some more touchdowns and change field position at least."

The Tigers had several problems with punting. Junior Cameron Owens shanked a 9-yard punt that gave the Mules possession at its own 33-yard line.

Central Missouri turned the short punt into a touchdown just before the end of the first half.

Early in the fourth quarter, Fort Hays had a fourth-and-6 at the Central Missouri 37-yard line. The Tigers pooch punted with junior quarterback Tarean Austin, but the ball went just seven yards. Then, senior quarterback Anthony Sheppard -- in the game at running back -- kicked the ball. Officials called Sheppard for illegal kicking and a 10-yard penalty. The net gain on the punt was minus-3 yards.

"That punt that Tarean had, in practice, he had been very solid with it all week," Brown said. "Right inside the 10 each time, and he has practiced very well at it, and this time, he had just got a little underneath the ball and it just went straight up for us."

Later in the quarter, Owens tried a fake punt on fourth-and-4 from his own 27-yard line. Owens had converted several fake punts this season and has three rushes for 67 yards. Brown said the team didn't call a fake punt in that situation.

This time, he rushed for minus-2 yards and then Central Missouri tackled him. The ball popped in the air and senior tight end Eli Cordon caught the ball and rushed for five yards. Still, the Tigers fell a yard short of the first down.

"It's a punt all the way," Brown said. "We've got a chance. We are still in the ball game with 10 minutes in the game, know the situation and know what is going on. You can't do those things."

Defense stepping up

The Tiger defense delivered another performance and held Central Missouri's explosive spread offense that had averaged 30 points and 394 yards a game to its lowest point total of the year.

Last year, FHSU allowed 34.7 points per contest. This year, it's 29.9 points a contest. The main reason is the Tigers leading the MIAA in red zone defense. Teams have scored just 68.1 percent of the time inside FHSU's red zone.

Opponents have had 11 possessions lost (including seven forced turnovers) inside Fort Hays' 20-yard line.

Last year, FHSU ranked fourth-best in the conference in red zone defense, but allowed opponents to score 77.4 percent of the time. Opponents had just nine lost possessions, including five forced turnovers.

Central Missouri was 2 of 3 inside the red zone with a missed 20-yard field goal on the drive. The Mules also missed from 43 yards later in the game.

"We've got to know what is coming," sophomore defensive back Michael Jordan, who led the team with 13 tackles, said. "Coach is always thinking ahead all the time, because they like to shift and motion and all that type of stuff. If you can communicate right, you can put yourself in the right position and make the play. We worked at that in practice."