EMPORIA — The way Fort Hays State came out moving the ball, the Tigers looked poised for a huge day on offense on Saturday at Emporia State.
And if not for four costly turnovers, it very well could have been.
Two of FHSU's miscues came inside ESU's 10-yard line, and the No. 18-ranked Tigers allowed the Hornets to rally from a 10-point second-half deficit as the Tigers suffered a 28-24 heartbreaker at ESU's Welch Stadium.
"I'm going to take total blame for that," Tigers' coach Chris Brown said. "That's my position, that's my running backs, and we had three turnovers today at my position alone. Inside the redzone, we were taking points off of the board instead of being able to kick field goals.
"Ball security is something we teach all the time. I told them coming into this game that they were going to try it and strip it out of there. You got to hold the ball with two hands, and we didn't do that."
Even despite the turnovers, Fort Hays was still in position to hold off the Hornets and move into a tie for first place in the MIAA. Instead, FHSU's playoff hopes are now on life support after ESU scored the game-winning touchdown on a 14-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Reed from Braxton Marstall with 51 seconds remaining.
The drive went 15 plays for 69 yards and ESU came through with two fourth-down conversions to keep it alive.
"It comes down to who wants to make the plays, and obviously Emporia, they were making those plays," FHSU linebacker Kolt Trachsel said. "We were making mistakes and obviously they were exposing those mistakes."
After ESU's go-ahead score, the Tigers (4-2) had all three timeouts left but the drive was derailed early when Jacob Mezera was sacked back at the 21 on the first play of the drive.
Still, Fort Hays managed to drive down to the ESU 33 but Tigers' quarterback Jacob Mezera was sacked by Jahmek Murphy as time expired.
"At the end of the game, I felt like we were going to get it done," ESU coach Garin Higgins said. "I felt it in how they kind of took the field, 'Like, Ok, the defense is going to end it right here.' That's what is expected of them, and they got the job done."
After settling for five field goals last week against Central Oklahoma, Fort Hays got off to a promising start offensively, striking first with a 41-touchdown pass to Harley Hazlett from Jacob Mezera.
FHSU had a chance to put ESU in a deep hole early but turned it over on its next two possessions. D.J. Hickman fumbled at the ESU 1 and Charles Tigner fumbled it away at the ESU 36. The Tigers had another redzone turnover when Mezera was picked off by Jace McDown at the ESU 6 in the second quarter.
"You're not going to come away with a win after four turnovers, that's just the way the game works," FHSU tight end Matt Wendelberger said. "The opportunities were set up right in front of us. Every play is an opportunity to put points on the board, we just couldn't do that today."
Fort Hays took a 7-0 lead into halftime but Emporia State knotted up the game on Marstall's 72-yard pass to Tyler Harris on the first play from scrimmage in the second half.
FHSU's Hunter Budke put the Tigers back in front, getting a 4-yard touchdown for his first career reception to make it 14-7 with 10:58 left in the third quarter. Dante Brown later tacked on a 46-yard field goal to make it 17-7 with 6:36 left in the frame.
One the next play after Marstall left the game after getting the wind knocked out of him, the Hornets (3-3) got a spark from redshirt quarterback Dalton Cowan, who hit Harris for a 54-yard touchdown pass to cut the deficit to 17-14 with 14:32 left.
The Tigers' fourth turnover, set up Marstall's 10-yard touchdown to Reed to give the Hornets their first lead at 21-17 with 8:05 left.
Fort Hays answered with a nine-play, 76-yard drive capped off by a 3-yard touchdown from Hickman with 5:31 left, before ESU answered with the game-winning drive.
FHSU put up 468 yards of offense but Brown said the Tigers still suffered from inconsistency.
"We're not consistently playing well all the time," he said. "We get up and relax a little bit. You know we got to take at ourselves in the mirror and see if we're doing everything that we possibly can to win ballgames."
Mezera completed 27 of 44 passes for 343 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Hazlett made 10 grabs for 108 yards and Bieberle had four catches for 100 yards. Tigner rushed for 106 yards on 20 carries.
Marstall was 32 of 54 through the air for 289 yards and three scores.
Fort Hays will look to regroup next week at home against Pittsburg State, which suffered a 31-7 loss to Northwest Missouri.
"It's all about pride now," Brown said.