Big plays hurting Tigers against stacked schedule
By CONOR NICHOLL
The Fort Hays State University football team lost 49-14 to Northwest Missouri State University, ranked No. 3 in NCAA Division II, last Saturday. Five plays, all in the Bearcats' favor, helped turn the tide. FHSU fumbled three times, including at its own 17- and 25-yard lines that Northwest Missouri quickly converted into scores.
As well, the Tigers gave up two big pass plays, a 40-yarder where the wideout was wide-open for a TD and a 33-yard score when FHSU bit on a play-action fake.
Those two areas -- turnovers and big plays allowed -- have continually cost the Tigers in an 0-3 start against three top-25 teams. Fort Hays has lost 43-13, 54-17 and 49-14, but in each game, the Tigers played with the squad for at least two quarters.
However, things have unraveled when FHSU has made errors.
Fort Hays has already allowed eight TDs of at least 28 yards. Last season, the Tigers allowed just seven offensive scores of at least 26 yards.
"We've got to quit allowing big plays on defense, making it easy for them, and then offensively, we can't turn the ball over, especially on our own side of the field and give them a chance to score," coach Chris Brown said.
Fort Hays has played the nation's hardest schedule, according to masseyratings.com. On Saturday, the Tigers' slate stays difficult with a road trip to No. 6-ranked Missouri Western State University (3-0). Game time is 6 p.m. at Spratt Stadium in St. Joseph, Mo.
"We can play with anybody, because we have got the talent. We just are not doing the little things that Northwest and Emporia and Washburn - they do the little things correct all the time," senior defensive back Andreas Ashwood said, referring to the Tigers' first three opponents. "We do the little things correct some of the time and some of the time isn't good enough. It's mental. It's not physical."
FHSU played without junior defensive backs/returners Daniel and Nathan Lindsey. The twin brothers were arrested Saturday on suspicion of drug possession for the second time in the last two months and are suspended indefinitely, Brown said.
Sophomore Raheeme Dumas and Ashwood started at the corners, while senior Zach Nash and freshman Alex Schmidtberger were the bandit backers and junior Michael Jordan was at free safety. In Week 2, Nathan Lindsey started at bandit and Daniel Lindsey started at corner in the first two contests.
"The score wasn't as bad as it seemed, because, on the field, we just busted two coverages," Ashwood said. "That's all it was. It was two coverage busts that have people wide open down the field. We feel like if we shore up those coverages and those busts, that we will be playing ball with those big teams."
Fort Hays stands second to the last in the 14-team MIAA in scoring defense (48.7 points per game) and has allowed 6.7 yards per play, third-worst.
The Tigers have permitted 11 TD passes against just one interception, also the second-worst rate. Brown has long advocated a "bend, but don't break" defense, but big plays have kept that from occurring.
In addition, FHSU has 10 turnovers, second-most in the league, and is tied for last in turnover margin at minus-8.
"You take away those opportunities and make them work and make them drive the field, maybe they make a mistake," Brown said. "That is something that we have stressed all year with our kids."
The 40-yard pass from Brady Bolles to Reuben Thomas came on the first play of the second quarter and gave Northwest Missouri a 21-0 lead.
"The safety said that he didn't get the call, so I guess that's mental," Ashwood said.
Six minutes and 32 seconds later, Trevor Adams found Bryce Young on a 33-yard pass off play action. In play action, Brown wants the safety to stay patient, read the play and then make a final decision to come up. Instead of reading, FHSU went too quickly. Young went right past the safety and hauled in the score.
"We bit up," Brown said. "We should have stayed back. It was a good play action fake by the quarterback and the running back and the o-line."
Offensively, senior Tanner Hageman fumbled at the Bearcat 20 after a long gain, senior Keaton Callins fumbled after a catch and freshman Evan Jennings fumbled a kickoff.
"We just can't turn the ball over," Hageman said. "That's been the biggest thing that we have done is turn the ball over in key spots, which potentially swings the game."
Those errors negated a solid game from sophomore quarterback Treveon Albert who delivered a 124 passer rating and rushed for 39 yards and a score. He had an 89.2 efficiency rating in Week 2 and an 111.8 in Week 1. The Tiger offensive line has allowed just one sack. But the turnovers and big plays have trumped any improvement.