Saturday’s game with Washburn offered both a flashback to the recent past and a glimpse into the future for the Fort Hays State Tigers.
The No. 17-ranked Tigers got back to utilizing some of the strengths reminiscent of last year’s MIAA championship team, posting a solid 30-24 win over the Ichabods on Saturday night at Lewis Field Stadium.
FHSU also broke in redshirt freshman Chance Fuller at quarterback, who split time with three-year starter Jacob Mezera.
All in all, it was a productive night for Fort Hays, which built a 20-10 lead by halftime and extended it to a 20-point advantage in the fourth quarter.
“I thought we played pretty well, especially in the first half,” FHSU coach Chris Brown said. “The thing I told them, ‘Last year the score was 20-10 Washburn (at half). We got to go out and finish and get after it. Pin our ears back and play more physical, offensively and defensively.’
“I thought we played better.”
Fuller made a surprise appearance in the first quarter and continued to get at least one series in each quarter. Mezera was 15 of 24 through the air for 130 yards with two touchdowns and an interception while Fuller was 3 of 6 for 35 yards.
“We’ve got to get him prepared for next year,” Brown said. “Jake’s not going to be here next year.
“I thought Jake had a great day as well.”
Running back Charles Tigner was the Tigers’ top performer on offense rushing for 98 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.
After attempting 62 passes in last week’s 23-13 loss to Missouri Western, the Tigers put an emphasis on the ground game, running the ball 44 times for 130 yards.
“The run game was definitely a big factor,” Tigner said. “We wanted to get the run game going and then the throwing game was going to be there.
“We need to learn how to establish our run game, and we were really worked on that this week,” Brown said. “Because teams are going to just pin their ears back and come after your quarterback. That’s something we really honed in on this week, running the ball, and I thought our backs did a good job.”
WU’s only lead of the night came on a Perry Schmiedeler 43-yard kick with 9:30 left in the first quarter.
FHSU then went on a nine-play, 75-yard drive and Harley Hazlett put the Tigers on the board after adjusting to a ball from Mezera and coming down with a 26-yard touchdown pass with 5:47 left in the first frame.
The Tigers later took advantage of a Washburn miscue on special teams after a bouncing, rugby-style from Dante Brown deflected off the hands of WU’s J.J. Letcher and the Tigers recovered at the WU 33. FHSU cashed in with a four-yard TD from D.J. Hickman.
WU found the end zone with 12:27 left in the second quarter after Peterson hit Jake Horner for a 20-yard TD pass. The Tigers were in position to make the tackle at the 10 but Horner took advantage of a slip to stroll into the end zone and bring the Bods within four.
Brown added another field goal but the Ichabods ran into him for a penalty that kept the drive alive, and the Tigers capitalized with a 2-yard TD run by Tigner with 5:44 left. WU’s Corey Ballentine blocked the PAT to keep it at 20-10.
“We really wanted to punish these guys and dominate them,” FHSU cornerback Keylon Kennedy said. “We came out the second half like it was the first quarter and we really wanted them to not get any more points.”
The only points of the third quarter came on a 42-yard field goal by Brown on the first possession of the half.
Fort Hays extended the lead to 30-10 on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Mezera to Jacoby Williams with 8:45 left in the game. WU cut the lead back to 13 on a 1-yard plunge from Hunter Browning with a 1-yard plunge with 6:30 remaining
The Ichabods made it interesting in the closing minutes after linebacker Austin Tillman picked off Mezera and had a 63-yard touchdown return to bring WU within six with with 1:09 left.
But the Tigers survived WU’s onside kick attempt and ran out the clock.
Washburn outgained the Tigers slightly, 299 to 295 but FHSU avoided giving up big plays.
WU starting quarterback Blake Peterson went 12 of 26 passing for 130 yards with two touchdowns before leaving midway through the fourth quarter with an ankle injury.
“We just kept communicating in the secondary,” Kennedy said. “If all of us are on the same page, moving as one, then there’s nothing they can do to beat us.”
Connor Shedeed and Wyatt Parker each had an interception for the Tigers and Shedeed logged a team-high 12 tackles.
The Tigers will be on the road at winless Missouri Southern next Saturday.
“Tonight was just a little piece of where we could be,” Brown said. “I think this team can be really, really good.”