Tigers nab 'W' at Emporia
By AUSTIN COLBERT
EMPORIA -- Turns out the Fort Hays State University football team had a weapon on offense it didn't know about. But against Emporia State University on Saturday, junior tight end Zack Gaughan, a Hays High School graduate, showed his upside with a career-high 96 yards on four catches, including a 52-yard touchdown catch on the game's opening drive.
It was just enough of a jolt to kick start the offense while the defense did the rest in a 24-21 win over the Hornets at Welch Stadium to snap a two-game skid.
"We need to start looking at our tight end a little more. Zack's a big body. How can you not hit him?" FHSU coach Chris Brown said of the team's 6-foot-5, 245-pound tight end. "He did a great job of catching those balls, then Treveon (Albert) did a good job of seeing it. I'm proud of both sides of the ball. I thought we played very well."
FHSU (4-3 overall, 4-3 MIAA) entered Saturday's game coming off a 26-7 home loss to Missouri Western, which followed a 27-24 overtime loss at Washburn.
ESU (3-4, 3-4) was looking just as desperate after losing 45-17 at Pittsburg State a week ago.
But in the first half Saturday, it was FHSU that came out with more want, building a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. Following the 52-yard TD from Albert to Gaughan to make it 7-0, the Tiger defense forced its second three-and-out in two possessions and it took the offense just one play to score again, a 42-yard strike from Albert to senior Ed Williams.
The score became 21-0 when senior running back Ed Smith capped off a seven play, 44-yard drive with a 5-yard TD run late in the first quarter.
"That's what it was, a huge momentum gain. That really is a very important thing," Gaughan said of his early touchdown catch, which was a also a career-long reception. "It feels great to get this win. We had a real tough loss at Washburn and then we went back home and didn't play very well against Missouri Western, so it was really nice to get things rolling on offense, score a couple of touchdowns."
Neither team would score in the second quarter, although ESU came close a couple of times. One drive reached the FHSU 10-yard line before Tiger junior Daniel Lindsey forced a fumble to end it. On the next Hornet possession, ESU reached the Tiger 22-yard line before the FHSU defense made a stop on a fourth-and-1 attempt.
"I thought they did a great job of keeping them out of the end zone. There were a couple of fourth downs where we got the stops that were huge for us," Brown said of his defense. "If they continue those drives, who knows, they might score. Our offense did a great job that first half of getting points on the board. First quarter, you know, 21 points, we need to continue to do that."
Leading 21-0 at the half, FHSU saw the Hornets slowly get back into it in the second half. The Hornets opened the third quarter with a 13 play, 53-yard drive that ended with a 20-yard field goal by Austin Morton to make it 21-3. FHSU's first drive of the half ended with a missed 47-yard field goal by junior Drew O'Brien, and ESU answered with a nine play, 70-yard drive and a 17-yard touchdown run by Kai Callins to cut it to 21-10.
The Tiger offense, nearly unstoppable in the first quarter, had trouble finding any momentum in the second half.
"The thing about it is, we just have to do a better job as an offense of rebounding," Gaughan said. "Just our execution changed a little bit. We stopped executing as well as we did in the first half. I'm sure some of the credit should go to their defense for making some adjustments in the second half, but like I said, we weren't executing as well."
ESU got a 32-yard field goal from Morton to make it 21-13 FHSU early in the fourth quarter, only to have the Tigers answer back with a 40-yard field goal make by O'Brien, which cleared the cross bar by mere inches.
The final eight minutes was left in the hands of the defense. ESU got one of the scores back on a 10-yard TD pass from true freshman Braxton Marstall, an Emporia native, to fellow freshman Justin Brown to make it 24-21 with less than six minutes to play. Marstall, the team's backup entering the game, was playing in place of redshirt-freshman starter Ty Reasnor, who left the game at the end of the first half with an apparent head injury.
The Tiger defense made its biggest stop of the game when senior Nathan Lindsey intercepted Marstall deep in ESU territory with 2:17 to play, effectively ending the game.
"Huge play by Lindsey there at the end. We needed that. Good drop, good break on the ball and getting the interception for us," Brown said. "Defensively, they really stepped up on those last couple of drives and made some things happen."
Albert finished the game 14 of 29 passing for 235 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He had 160 yards passing with two touchdowns after the first quarter. Smith led the Tiger rushers with 70 yards on 16 carries.
While Gaughan had the 98 yards on four catches, Williams chimed in with 68 yards on four grabs. Junior linebacker Justin McPhail led the defense with 15 tackles, eight solo.
FHSU will return home next week when it hosts Northwest Missouri State (6-1, 6-1) at 2 p.m. on Saturday at Lewis Field Stadium. Northwest, the defending national champions, entered this week No. 1 in the nation but lost at home against No. 17 Pittsburg State, 35-17, on Saturday.