For most of Thursday’s season opener against Central Missouri, the Fort Hays State Tigers were struggling to resemble the team that ran through the MIAA unscathed last season.
No. 18 UCM had the No. 5-ranked Tigers on their heels almost from the start, racking up 334 yards by halftime.
But even as FHSU gave up big yardage on defense and went stagnant at times on offense, the Tigers hung around long enough to leave the door open, even when trailing 16-6 with five minutes left in the game.
“I’d say that we were never out of the game,” Tigers’ bandit Tanner Hoekman said. “With our mentality we never thought we were out of the game the whole time even though we were down.”
Sparked by two huge plays in a one-minute span — a touchdown pass and a turnover — the Tigers conjured up some of last season’s magic in time to rally for a 20-16 win over the Mules at Lewis Field Stadium.
Set up by a UCM fumble, the Tigers scored the game-winning touchdown with 3:05 left on a 5-yard TD from Jacob Mezera to Layne Bieberle. An interception by Hoekman then sealed the win.
“I’m proud of these guys,” FHSU coach Chris Brown said while acknowledging the Tigers had a lot to clean up. “They fought. They never quit. That’s just who these Tigers are. They love to fight and battle and win ballgames.”
The Tigers, who were outgained 508 to 327, scored two touchdowns in a 1:41 span and came up with two turnovers in the last four minutes to overtake the Mules, who were dealt a big blow after All-MIAA quarterback Brook Bolles was sidelined by an arm injury early in the third quarter and did not return.
Redshirt freshman Jmari Davis ignited the comeback by hauling in a 37-yard TD from Mezera to cut UCM’s lead to three with 4:46 left.
“That was a huge play for us. Huge momentum change,” Brown said.
The Tigers had the ball back in their hands a minute later after UCM backup quarterback Kyle Bradley had an unforced fumble that FHSU lineman Sheldon Schmidt scooped up and returned 10 yards to the Mules' 4.
“I saw (Schmidt) pick the ball up and about two more of our D-lineman swarming around him and I was cheering, cause I was like, 'That’s an easy touchdown,’ ” Hoekman said. “And then I said, ‘Keep your feet, big fella!’ Then he just kind of went down.
“But, hey, then the offense came up big, so hats off to Sheldon and our offense.”
Mezera fired in a strike to Bieberle on third down to give the Tigers their first lead.
“I saw no safety out there,” Bieberle said. “It was just one-on-one and just had to beat the man. Jacob threw an awesome ball and it fell into the hands.”
For his part, Bradley, a redshirt sophomore, kept the Mules in control for most of the second half and avoided costly mistakes until the ball slipped out of his grasp, putting the Tigers on the doorstep for the game-winning score.
But he wasn’t near as effective as Bolles, who finished with 197 yards passing and a TD before ending his night early after he was wrapped up by FHSU linebacker Kolt Trachsel on a carry.
“I hope Bolles is OK,” Brown said. "I feel bad for that kid. He’s a great quarterback. I hope he’s healthy and can come back and play this season.”
Bradley had a chance to answer the Tigers’ go-ahead score and drove the Mules down to the FHSU 46 before Hoekman picked off a pass at the 25 and ran out of bounds with about 13 seconds left.
“In my head, I was just thinking, ‘Just stay deep. Read his eyes and stay deep,’ ” Hoekman said. “So I saw that guy crossing pretty good and (Jordan) Starks had great coverage on him. So I just went over the top and the ball just happened to fall in my lap.”
Bolles and the Mules came out clicking, crossing into Tiger territory on all five drives in the first half. But they only had 10 points to show for it.
They opened with a 71-yard drive that was spoiled when Jose Delgado forced a fumble that was covered up by Aquil Knowles. Their second drive resulted in a 20-yard field goal by Alex Langer after Knowles broke up a pass in the end zone.
The Tigers buckled down to prevent points on the next two UCM possessions. Hoekman batted down a pass on third down at the Tiger 33 that forced a punt. The Mules’ next drive went to the FHSU 18 but Jhimon Preston blocked Langer’s 35-yard field goal attempt.
“All those little things are huge,” Brown said. “If we don’t block that field goal, all they got to do is kick a field goal toward the end of the game.”
After the blocked kick, Fort Hays came up with their first productive drive, marching to the UCM 15. The Tigers had to settle for a Dante Brown 31-yard field goal.
Central Missouri took the momentum into halftime after a nine-play, 71-yard drive capped off by Kyrion Parker’s 2-yard touchdown catch.
Dante Brown cut the lead to 10-6 on FHSU’s first possession of the third quarter with a 30-yard field goal but UCM later went up 16-6 when Devante Turner broke loose for a 43-yard TD.
The junior punter/place-kicker was an unsung hero for the Tigers and had the early highlight of the season when he boomed an 84-yard punt that tied Adam Ryan’s boot in 1997 for longest punt in school history. He averaged 47.9 yards on seven punts.
“It was huge especially when the wind was in our face in the third quarter,” Chris Brown said. “He changed field position quite a few times.”
Bieberle hauled in eight passes for 112 yards and a TD while Charles Tigner rushed for 80 yards on 11 carries. Mezera went 19 of 40 through the air for 226 yards and two scores.
FHSU’s Doyin Jibowu had a game-high 12 tackles from his bandit position, while Delgado, Knowles and Hoekman each had 10 stops.
The Tigers will be on the road at Missouri Western next Thursday.
“That first win is always a good one,” Brown said. “This was against a very, very good football team. They’re going to finish high in this conference as well.
“We needed that win. You don’t get that win and it’s going to be an uphill battle all year long. People are going to be gunning for you and we got a tough one next week against Mo West.”