KEARNEY, Neb. — After the four other clutch kicks Dante Brown delivered during Saturday’s double-overtime thriller at Nebraska-Kearney, a 26-yarder to win the game seemed like a mere formality.
However, UNK made a last-ditch effort to break the concentration of Fort Hays State’s standout kicker, trying to freeze Brown with a timeout ahead of his attempt in the second overtime.
“When I was a freshman in high school, (freezing the kicker) used to get me rattled because I used to think about it a lot,” Brown said. “But now, you’re just sort of wasting time.”
Indeed, any attempt to disrupt Brown at that point was futile.
The junior kicker was in the zone all day, calmly nailing the 26-yarder in the second OT to send the Tigers to a 29-26 win on Saturday at UNK’s Cope Stadium.
Brown tied his own school record with five field goals in the game, also connecting from 22, 47, 46 and 34 yards out.
Two of Brown’s kicks put the Tigers in front in the fourth quarter, including the 46-yarder that gave FHSU a three-point lead with 42 seconds left in regulation.
“You just got to breathe and relax and just think of it like every other kick,” said. “I’ve kicked thousands of balls since I’ve started kicking field goals. As soon as you shut out the crowd, it’s no different. You just got to finish.”
Brown’s foot helped Fort Hays State keep its playoff and MIAA championship destiny in its own hands. The win moved FHSU to 6-2 to stay a game back of first-place Northwest Missouri.
“Without Dante, we don’t win this ball game,” said Tigers’ coach Chris Brown, who with the win tied Bob Cortese for the most victories in program history with 55. “…The kid is tremendous. He’s confident, he believes. We know we can trust him, and any time we get opportunities to put points on the board, we’re going to use him.”
Brown now has FHSU’s record for single-season field goals with 20, breaking Brandon Brown's mark of 16 set in 2016.
He gave the Tigers their first lead since early in the first quarter by connecting from 47 yards out with 11:15 left in the fourth quarter. The kick was set up by a fumble recovery from FHSU’s Sheldon Schmidt at the UNK 31.
Brown then traded key kicks with Kearney’s Brian Covarrubias, who was clutch in his own right, hitting a game-tying 35-yarder as time expired in regulation.
After both kickers converted field goals in the overtime period, Brown took advantage of Covarrubias’ slip-up after the UNK kicker missed from 36 yards.
The Tigers then drove down to the UNK 9 before Brown capped off his huge day.
“No matter how many times you come out on the field, it’s all mental,” Brown said. “People need to realize it’s more of a mental game than it is physical. You can be extraordinary talented physically, but mentally, if you can’t slow down and relax, it’s all for naught.”
Like last week against Pittsburg State, Fort Hays jumped out to a promising start. D.J. Hickman capped off a seven-play, 75-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run on the first possession.
However, Kearney responded with a 98-yard return for a touchdown by Darius Webb on the ensuing kickoff. It was the Lopers' first kickoff return for a touchdown in 11 years.
The Lopers grabbed the lead on a 2-yard TD run by Luke Quinn midway through the second quarter before Brown’s 22-yard field goal made it 14-10 at the break.
UNK (4-4) extended the lead to 17-10 early in the third on Covarrubias’ 26-yard field goal, but FHSU evened it up at 17 with 13:12 left in the fourth when Harley Hazlett scored on a four-yard run out of the Wildcat formation, marking the last touchdown of the game.
FHSU compiled 370 yards of total offense while Kearney finished with 332.
Hazlett had nine catches for 93 yards while D.J. Hickman churned out 111 yards rushing on 24 carries in his second straight start. FHSU quarterback Jacob Mezera was 20 of 34 through the air for 194 yards with an interception.
“They didn’t give us big plays offensively,” Chris Brown said. "We couldn’t get big plays just because of the way they were playing their defense. And their offense is just hard to stop. They got big guys up front.
“I’m proud of the guys. They kept battling, kept competing. It was tough playing an 11 o’clock game. We’re not used to it. But I’m proud of the guys, they battled and competed. That was a good win for us on the road.”
He credited the defense for stiffening up in the red zone in the second half and two overtime periods.
“That scheme is hard to defend,” Brown said. “One guy gets out of position, they can get yards on it. Their tailbacks are tremendous. Their quarterback (Alex McGinnis) is tremendous. They got a lot of good players on that team that can make big plays.
“A team like that, they’re going to grind yards and wear you down, and that’s what they were trying to do. They were trying to wear us down. Our defense got a little tired, but when it came to the end our guys made plays when they needed to and they got the dub.”
The game saw FHSU linebacker Jose Delgado become the Tigers’ all-time leading tackler since they joined the NCAA Division II ranks. Delgado, who had 10 stops on Saturday, now has 364 tackles for his career, passing Keith Eck’s mark of 361 set from 1993-96.
The Tigers played without All-MIAA tight end Matt Wendelberger, who suited up but was sidelined with an injury.
Connor Shedeed had a team-high 12 tackles for the Tigers.
The Tigers will be at home next Saturday against Lindenwood.
“We’re talking about going 3-0 now,” Chris Brown said. “Our destiny’s right there. We got to win these next three. If we do that, we’ll tie for the conference championship at least and probably get into the playoff because we’d have the head-to-head over Pitt and Northwest."