Tigers set for No. 10 Bearcats
By NICK McQUEEN
Last Saturday, the Fort Hays State University football team enjoyed one of its best starts when it jumped out to a 21-0 lead at Emporia State University.
Then things went south a bit, but the Tigers were able to hang on for a 24-21 road victory.
It's that kind of game that won't fly this week. The Tigers know if they have any chance of winning, it's going to take a full 60 minutes of top-notch football against defending national champion and MIAA perennial powerhouse Northwest Missouri State University.
Game time for the annual Hall of Fame game is 2 p.m. Saturday at Lewis Field Stadium.
"We started really well, but I feel like we came out a little dead in the second half," Tiger junior linebacker Justin McPhail said of last week's win, which pushed the Tigers to 4-3 and snapped a two-game losing streak. "Nothing against Emporia, they're a very good football team, but we can't afford to do that this week."
Nor can FHSU afford any little mistakes that have proven costly numerous times. No. 10 Northwest Missouri State (6-1 overall, 6-1 MIAA) is coming off its first loss, a rare home setback to Pittsburg State University. The same Gorilla team the Tigers beat 7-6 in Pittsburg, the first FHSU win in Pittsburg in three decades.
"Play physical, play aggressive, play relentless just like they do," Tiger fourth-year coach Chris Brown said. "If we can do that and match their intensity, I think we'll have a pretty good night with them."
FHSU has proven it can do that, depending on which Tiger team shows up Saturday. There's the Tiger team that held Pitt State -- the conference's third-highest-scoring team -- to just six points, and did enough offensively to win. Then, there's the Tiger team that gave up a 71-yard touchdown run on third down in a 26-7 homecoming loss to Missouri Western State University. Or the two different Tiger teams that showed up last week at Emporia State.
"It really starts with just making big plays," McPhail said. "Someone makes a big hit or a big catch, that really sparks some excitement. Whenever we have that, it kind of ignites excitement on the sideline and gets everyone going."
Northwest Missouri State, led by junior quarterback Blake Bollles, is the highest scoring team in the MIAA at 37.3 points per game, while FHSU has held its opponents to 18 per outing, not giving up any more than 27.
NWMSU will spread the ball around and run multiple sets.
"They're solid offensively and very physical and aggressive defensively, and relentless on the field," Brown said of the Bearcats, who finished 13-0 and won NCAA Division II last season. "They're going to man up, and play man coverage and bring some pressure at you."
The Bearcats have posted 40 or more points three times, but managed just 17 last week in the loss to Pitt State. Bolles sits just behind Pitt State's Anthony Abenoja in pass yards average. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder averages 229 yards through the air and has 12 touchdowns. Northwest has beaten the Tigers 10 straight times, four wins coming in Hays.
The closest FHSU has been in that stretch was a 17-10 loss in 2007 in Hays. The last four meetings the Bearcats have won a combined 212-68.
"Northwest has beat up on us a little bit," McPhail said. "This game I'm feeling good going into it. I know we can do it. We beat Pitt. I feel everyone has a better mindset going into it."
FHSU will look to counter the Bearcats' attack by establishing the run, and getting junior quarterback Treveon Albert comfortable. Last week he had one of his better games by completing 14 of 29 passes for 235 yards and two scores, including a 52-yard strike to junior tight end Zack Gaughan. Albert is completing 54 percent of his passes, and has 1,119 passing yards with eight scores. Senior Edward Smith leads the rushing attack with 378 yards and four scores.
"First off, we have to establish the line of scrimmage and not let them penetrate and make easy plays in the backfield," Brown said. "Try to establish the run game, and add some play-action in there to keep them off-balance."
The Bearcats rank second in the MIAA in total defense behind Pitt State, allowing just 229.4 yards per game. The two teams are close in points allowed, Northwest giving up 15.9 per game.
Like Pitt did last week, FHSU thinks it just needs to come out and deal the first blow.
"Pitt State threw the punch at them, and that's how they reacted," said Tiger senior safety Micheal Jordan. "We need to go out and do the same thing."