ST. CHARLES, Mo. — They knew it wouldn’t be easy.
Fort Hays State University football coach Chris Brown talked this week about how Lindenwood University was a much-improved football team.
The Tigers — ranked No. 14 in NCAA Division II — found that out Saturday, having to grind out a 38-35 victory to move to 5-0. It’s the first such start for the Tigers since 1983.
The Tigers had to come from behind twice to get it done, overcoming a rough day that included three turnovers and a healthy handful of penalties. Upstart Lindenwood dropped to 2-3.
The game started in favor of FHSU. After forcing a punt, the Tigers got a good return from Layne Bieberle, and the Tigers ran nine plays to go 41 yards, capped by a 2-yard run for Kenneth Iheme and a 7-0 lead.
Lindenwood, though, answered quick. Najee Jackson ran in from 1 yard out to cap a 6-play drive that only had to go 25 yards after an FHSU fumble.
But at the end of the first quarter, FHSU went back up. Jacob Mezera capped a 10-play, 67-yard drive with a 3-yard pass to Monterio Burchfield, part of a big day for the Tiger junior receiver.
Lindenwood, which put up 45 points last week in a win at Pitt State, wasn’t going away. Jackson again drove the Lions down the field — 75 yards on six plays — and Jackson found DeSean Warren from 11 yards to tie the game back up at 14.
Then the Tigers found themselves in unfamiliar territory. Jackson again found Warren with 3:24 to play before halftime, this time from 4 yards as the Lions grabbed a 21-14 lead. FHSU trailed at halftime for the first time this season, but it didn’t last long.
On the Tigers’ first possession, Mezera hit Burchfield again on just the fourth play of the the third quarter. Burchfield grabbed the pass at 37 yards, and he finished off the 48-yard score dragging a defender to tie the game.
But a big return set Lindenwood up at the FHSU 47, and the Lions made the most of it. Shakeem Wharton gave Lindenwood the lead on a 1-yard run with 9:32 to play in the third.
Down 28-21, Mezera went to Burchfield again. Facing third-and-6, Mezera hit Burchfield and the junior rumbled 76 yards to the house to tie things back up at 28.
Then with 7:59 to play in the game, FHSU got its first lead since early in the second quarter. The Tigers had first and goal after a 54-yard run by Kenneth Iheme, but settled for a 27-yard field goal by Brandon Brown.
Then Goodland product Kolt Trachsel provided the Tigers a boost. Going up against a freshman backup QB in Max Meylor for the Lions, Trachsel jumped on a route for a pick and took it the distance — 25 yards to put the Tigers up 10. It was one of two takeaways for the Tigers.
Lindenwood didn’t go quietly. Jackson again marched the Lions down the field quickly, throwing a 17-yard touchdown pass with 1:03 to play to narrow the gap to three. The Tigers recovered the ensuing onside kick and was able to run out the clock.
Lindenwood had not allowed a 200-yard passing game all season, but Mezera finished 25 of 35 for 294 yards and three scores — all three went to Burchfield. He caught five balls for 173 yards. Iheme finished with 30 carries for 174 yards and a score. The 54-yard run was the longest of his career.
Next week’s homecoming contest against Pitt State is slated for 7 p.m. at Lewis Field Stadium.