It’s not all that uncommon for members of the Fort Hays State University football team to put aside the fact they are going up against a ranked opponent.
It happens more often than not as a member of the MIAA, often argued as the most dominant conference in NCAA Division II.
Asked a question about No. 13 ranked University of Central Missouri, the Tigers’ opponent in Week 2 on Thursday night, and FHSU junior defensive back Conner Shedeed had to ask, “They’re 13th?”
Of course the new rankings had just come out Monday, and the Mules had climbed eight spots after their 28-23 home win against Pittsburg State University.
But that wouldn’t have mattered. Shedeed, nor the Tigers are focused all that much on those numbers.
“We know it’s Central Mo., we knew it’s a big week, Shedeed said. “We just have to go out there and put it to them.”
That sets the tone for Thursday’s 7 p.m. kickoff at Lewis Field Stadium, the Tigers’ home opener.
FHSU is just looking to take another step in proving it belongs in the conversation among the best in the conference, and Thursday presents the next opportunity and another week to get better.
“All the pressure is on them,” FHSU quarterback Jacob Mezera said of the Mules owning the No. 13 ranking in NCAA Division II. “We just gotta play football. It’s going to be very tough, going to be a four-quarter game, and the team that makes the fewest mistakes is going to win the game.”
Mezera was nearly mistake-free in the Tigers’ season-opener. He completed 21 of 29 passes for 245 yards and two scores, and rushed for another TD, earning MIAA Offensive Player of the Week honors. With its 48 points, FHSU sits 12th in the nation in scoring after Week 1, and leads the MIAA. Mezera, in just three quarters played of the blowout, spread the ball around to 10 different receivers. He and seventh-year Tiger head coach Chris Brown know things won’t seem nearly as easy against the Mules, a blitz-happy defensive attack that puts pressure on the QB.
“Their team as a whole is pretty darn good,” Brown said as he went down the long list of things the Mules do well. “They’re going to be a team that is going to finish high in the conference.”
Central Missouri, which hasn’t had a losing season in 11 years and has finished above .500 in 18 of the last 19 seasons, was second in the conference a year ago and fell to Harding in the first round of the Division II playoffs. Included in the 2016 run was a 34-17 win against the Tigers in Warrensburg, Mo. The matchup is one of only two games in the MIAA where both teams picked up a Week 1 victory.
“The first step is Missouri Southern, now it’s Step 2,” Brown said. “And that’s Central Missouri. They got us last year, so it’s a little bit we want to get some revenge.”
The Mules put up 470 yards of offense against the Gorillas last week, highlighted by 226 yards passing and 65 rushing for Brook Bolles, a redshirt junior from Lincoln, Neb. Bolles completed 15 of 37 passes for with two interceptions and a touchdown. He also rushed for a TD. The Mules put up 244 on the ground.
Key to stopping the Mules could be stopping Bolles.
“Their quarterback looks super athletic,” Shedeed said. “He’s got a good arm. Our challenge is going to be stopping the deep ball and stopping the run game.”
Already, despite its youth in the secondary, FHSU is expecting big things on defense. Last week, with junior Jose Delgado missing the game with injury, sophomores Tevin Evans and Kolt Trachsel made the starts at linebacker for the first time. The youth didn’t stop the expectation.
“We weren’t, happy with the seven (points allowed,” said Shedeed, who led FHSU with eight tackles last week. “With Coach (Cooper) Harris, any points, any yards is too many.”
Consistently among the best teams in the conference, Central Missouri has scored points in 283 straight games, having not been shutout since the 1991 season.
FHSU defeated the Mules, 28-14, in Hays in 2015, part of the Tigers’ 8-3 campaign. It also was the last time Central Missouri lost on the road in the regular season. The Tigers know, though, this game is part of the next step in the rising program.
“This is a huge game for us,” Mezera said. “This is what it’s all about. Gotta win the hard games. Northwest, Emporia, Central Missouri. That’s where we’re at.
“This is the first one,” he added.