The Tigers have found a way — and are determined — to win football games.
That much can’t be denied after the Fort Hays State University football team rallied from a 14-0 deficit and defeated University of Central Oklahoma on the road Saturday — the Tigers’ first test as a ranked team by the AFCA in NCAA Division II.
Now, all seventh-year head coach Chris Brown and the Tigers have to focus on, is keeping that momentum going in a long, tough stretch in the MIAA.
“I really saw a group of guys that could compete and battle for four quarters,” Brown said Tuesday in his weekly news conference. “And not just roll over and die. They want to be a championship team, and that’s the way they played that second half.”
And championship-caliber teams take care of business, and that’s the focus this week as FHSU — now ranked No. 18 — begins prep for Northeastern State University, a team that brings what Brown labels a deceiving 0-3 mark into Saturdays’ 2 p.m. contest at Lewis Field Stadium.
The Tigers realize how close they were to having their ultimate goal come to an end early. Each week is a must-win for any team hopeful of competing for an MIAA championship. Every season, it’s likely winning the conference will take an unbeaten record.
At some point during the game with the Tigers trailing Saturday night, that fact sank in.
“We had a little lull,” said Tiger junior linebacker Jose Delgado. “We have to come back and play a lot more physical than we have.
“We just know we have to win the game. We just got focused, locked down and took it to them.”
The Tigers’ offense came alive as well, regaining the confidence it had through two blowout victories to start the season.
The Tigers, while trailing, showed a confidence they still could get the job done, despite two early interceptions — one that led to the Bronchos’ 14-0 lead.
“We have kids here that really want to win, that really want to compete,” Brown said. “They hate to lose, and they are going to do everything they possibly can to win a ball game.”
For the Tigers to avoid a letdown as they continue the climb in the ranks, Brown said, it starts with the work they put in early. He said he didn’t believe they prepared well last week and didn’t travel well to Edmond, Okla.
Tiger senior receiver Tyler Bacon agreed.
“It starts with practice; it starts with preparation,” Bacon said. “Make sure you don’t have a letdown.”
It also helps the Tigers are trying not to look ahead. But before playing Pittsburg State in an Oct. 7 homecoming night game, FHSU’s next two opponents — Northeastern State and Lindenwood (on the road) — are a combined 1-5 through three weeks.
“It’s still a long season, and we have a lot of good teams to play,” Bacon said. “Day-by-day, week-by-week, practice-by-practice, game-by-game. It’s not easy, but that’s what you have to do.”
It seemed just a matter of time to coaches and his teammates before Tiger junior Monterio Burchfield would put up a monster game. It happened in Saturday’s win at UCO. Burchfield busted loose for eight catches, 217 yards, and scored the game-winning touchdown from 64 yards with 42 seconds to play.
He was named the MIAA Offensive Player of the Week, and now has 15 catches through three games for 270 yards and three TDs. Does he think it’s time the MIAA takes notice?
Sure, but not just because of him.
“We have dangerous receivers. They’ve got to account for all of us,” Burchfield said. “You can’t just account for me.
“And we’ve got a great quarterback,” Burchfield said of Jacob Mezera, who had 401 passing yards in the win, already is nearing 1,000 yards for the season. “Great quarterbacks make anyone look good.”
Through three weeks, the FHSU offense ranks second in scoring at 38.0 points per game and is leading the way at 466.3 yards per game total as the conference’s top passing team at 317.7 yards per contest. Burchfield and sophomore Layne Bieberle are ranked third and sixth in receiving yards per contest at 90 and 71.3, respectively. Mezera’s stats have been spread around to 11 different receivers, and he has a touchdown to five different guys.
As Tiger sophomore Harley Hazlett becomes more comfortable, look for more out of the Garden City Community College transfer from Abilene. Already, Hazlett has scored twice out of the wildcat formation and was stopped just short in another goal-line situation Saturday.
Brown expects Hazlett to become an even bigger weapon, and one that certainly can throw teams off.
“He’s just a tremendous athlete and can do so many different things for you,” Brown said. “As a defense, you have to prepare. It probably does give it away when we take Jake (Mezera) out, but we’re at the point where we can leave Jake in the game and do some things with Harley too.”