Fort Hays State's first play from scrimmage served as an omen for what proved to be an explosive day for the Tigers against No. 18-ranked Pittsburg State on Saturday.
Harley Hazlett took a short pass from Jacob Mezera, stiff-armed a Gorilla defender and raced 75 yards for a touchdown on the first play.
Those kind of plays were a theme all day long for Fort Hays, with the Tigers picking up their most lopsided win over Pitt State in series history with a 50-21 rout at Lewis Field Stadium.
“I just saw all the green grass and this dude was trying to angle me down and I knew that I had to get physical to make him miss,” said Hazlett, a junior receiver. “After that, I just had to run.
“I think it set the tone well because we knew coming in it was going to be a tough game. Starting out that way, it feels like it kind of takes the wind out of their sails.”
The dream start continued when Pitt State returner Lorenzo West bobbled the ensuing kickoff and was tackled at the Pitt 2. FHSU parlayed the miscue into a safety after Malik Young made a tackle in the end zone.
Pitt State would climb back to take a 14-12 lead early in the second quarter but Mezera found Matt Wendelberger for a 59-yard touchdown to put FHSU back in front. Hazlett later scored on a 1-yard run in the wildcat formation, helping FHSU take a 26-14 lead into halftime.
Fort Hays (5-2) never let the Gorillas (5-2) back into the game, outscoring Pitt 24-7 in the second half. The Tigers forced five turnovers on the day including a fourth-quarter pick-six from Doyin Jibowu that sealed it.
“I think we finally played a full game,” Tigers’ coach Chris Brown said. “That’s what I’ve been looking at for a long time and I think we finally did it. We were mentally tough, we didn’t back down, we kept pinning our ears back and getting after them.
“That’s the most complete game I’ve seen this group play all year. If we continue playing like this, we’re going to win a lot of ball games.”
In throwing for 231 yards and three touchdowns, Mezera took down two more program records. He’s eclipsed Mike Garrison’s record for career passing yards, extending his total to 7,083 yards. He also set the record for career passing touchdowns with his 56th TD, beating Treveon Albert’s mark of 55.
The senior said getting the records against Pitt made it even better.
“It’s so sweet,” Mezera said. “Like I said before, I don’t like Pitt State at all. It adds on to (the significance) and I won’t forget it, that’s for sure.”
Mezera’s record-breaking TD came on a 34-yard touchdown to Layne Bieberle to push the lead to 36-14 late in the third quarter.
FHSU began to put the Gorillas to bed after Wyatt Parker stripped PSU quarterback John Roderique and linebacker Jose Delgado returned it to the Pitt 2, setting up Charles Tigner’s 1-yard plunge.
After Pitt scored their only TD of the half on a 15-yard touchdown pass to Lorenzo West, FHSU later capped off the win with Jibowu’s 22-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“I think it was being in the right spot and just being more physical,” Delgado said of the Tigers’ five forced turnovers, which included a key Pitt fumble on a punt return in the third quarter. “We’ve been trying to preach being the most physical team on the field. I think that’s when turnovers will come, when you’re being more physical and hitting people and being in the right spots and playing fast.”
Bieberle had 119 yards receiving while Hazlett had two grabs for 81 yards and also threw a 28-yard pass to quarterback Chance Fuller out of the wildcat. Fuller again played a few series, completing 6 of 7 passes including a 47-yarder to Bieberle.
Dante Brown went two of three on field goal attempts, connecting on tries from 27 and 24 yards and missing a 55-yarder.
The Tigers outgained PSU 461-348 and limited Roderique to 21 of 37 through the air for 178 yards with two interceptions. PSU backup quarterback Matt Harman also tossed a pick.
Delgado had 12 tackles with a sack while Young led the charge on the defensive front with 11 stops. Jibowu, Kolt Trachsel and Jordan Starks each had an interception.
The win moved FHSU into a tie with Pitt State for second place in the MIAA, one game back of Northwest Missouri.
“I think we need to know that we should be confident now,” Delgado said. “We see that if we put all the things — offense, defense, special teams — together in a four-quarter game, this is the turnout we’ll get.”