As the wins continue to mount for the Fort Hays State University football team, so does its expectation to keep things rolling.
The accolades and attention are starting to add up, but the now No. 14 ranked Tigers still are taking it all in stride.
They seemed to have embraced the fact that any given opponent — like this week’s MIAA foe in Lindenwood — can take all that away with one victory. If last week told the MIAA anything, it’s Lindenwood can, in fact, beat anyone.
Heading into Saturday’s 1 p.m. kickoff at Hunter Stadium in St. Charles, Mo., the 2-2 Lions are coming off a 45-11 beatdown of perennial contender Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg.
It comes as no surprise to the Tigers, and they expect a big-time road test.
“They have a new coach and he’s bringing a new mentality to the team,” said Tiger junior defensive back Doyin Jibowu. “They’re a good team.”
Add to that, a long road trip the Tigers will split into two days. FHSU leaves today and will practice at Independence, Mo., before heading on. It’s the longest road trip FHSU will make during the regular season, approximately 500 miles from Hays to St. Charles, Mo.
Lindenwood sits in the middle of the MIAA pack. The Lions own wins against Northeastern State University and Pitt State, and suffered losses to University of Central Oklahoma and Washburn.
The success Lindenwood has had this season is due, in part, to a more physical attitude, and improved play on the line under first-year coach Jed Stugart.
“They’re big up front and get movement,” Tiger coach Chris Brown said of the Lions. “You see a different type of swagger to them. They’re confident, they play faster, they play more physical.”
FHSU owns five straight victories against Lindenwood, a program that finished 3-8 a season ago, including a 37-6 loss to FHSU in Hays.
While putting up 45 last week, Lindenwood averages 31 points per game, while averaging 438.3 yards per game (fifth in the conference). The Lions run a read-option type of offense led by Najee Jackson, a mobile quarterback with 777 passing yards and 185 rushing yards through four starts.
“It’s all about zone reads, power reads, jet sweep reads,” said Tiger senior defensive lineman Luke Wright. “If we’re not sound on our assignments it could be a long day for us.”
That’s been key thus far for a solid Tiger defense. FHSU sits second n the conference, giving up just 269 yards per game, and has given up just 44 points. Only top-ranked Northwest Missouri State University has been better, allowing just 14 points through four weeks. Last week, FHSU gave up just one touchdown to NSU, and that came on a 20-yard field after a Jacob Mezera interception. Outside of that, FHSU gave up less than 200 yards.
“Was a good game, but it’s not a complete game,” Jibowu said, “unless there’s a zero on the board.”
The Tiger offense, meanwhile, put up 31 points in the victory, but Brown said FHSU still left a lot out there. As the season progresses and if FHSU hopes to continue its climb, a more fierce attitude will be needed.
“We get lax at times,” said sophomore receiver and wildcat QB Harley Hazlett. “We’ll put up 20 points and feel like ‘Oh, we don’t really have to try as hard.”
That needs to change.
“We really need to learn to kind of develop a killer instinct in a sense and go out there and hang up another 20 in the second half.”
The Tigers’ 456.5 yards per game ranks second in the conference, while FHSU leads the MIAA in passing yardage, headlined by 271 passing yards per game for Mezera.
Senior running back Kenneth Iheme had his best game last week in the win against NSU. He rushed for 95 yards and two scores, and caught four passes for 34 yards. He leads the Tiger run game with 61 carries for 318 yards and five scores.
The focus this week will be on finishing strong, if FHSU is fortunate enough to hold off a strong Lions team, and be in a position to win. They know it won’t be easy. In the MIAA, it never is.
“They’ve done a good job of preparing themselves each week for their opponent. It doesn’t really matter who it is, they’re going to win that ball game, and they expect to win that ball game,” Brown said. “The only thing I wish they would do is learn to play all four quarters.”