The Tigers needed something big.
Trailing 17-0 in front of nearly 7,000 at Lewis Field Stadium on Saturday night, nothing went well early for the No. 11 ranked Fort Hays State University football team.
Turns out that something big came from its defense. A fumble recovered by Tiger defensive back Tanner Hoekman provided the spark, and FHSU scored 21 unanswered to rally from behind and grab a 21-17 MIAA victory over Pittsburg State University.
Fittingly, the defense was on the field to hold the Gorillas out of the end zone at the end as well, securing the victory to push the Tigers to 6-0 to remain tied atop the MIAA with No. 1 ranked Northwest Missouri State University.
It was the first win at home against the Gorillas since 1978, sending a hyped-up homecoming crowd into a frenzy as a postgame fireworks show erupted.
“It was a very good football game,” Tiger coach Chris Brown said. “Pitt State is a great team. It was a battle. Our kids battled — all the way through that game.”
And the Tigers overcame great odds to get it done.
The Tigers fell into a 14-0 hole after a pick-6 by FHSU quarterback Jacob Mezera on a screen pass on third and long. Then, Mezera left the game with an ankle injury. Backup Jacoby Williams later threw a pick that led to a 47-yard field goal by the visitors. It was 17-0 at the start of the second quarter.
What happened later in the quarter “gave us some hope,” junior linebacker Jose Delgado said. “It definitely turned the tables.”
Pitt State fumbled the ball near midfield and Hoekman fell on it. On the next play, Tiger senior running back Kenneth Iheme bursted 47 yards for FHSU’s first score — and the rally commenced.
“That was huge,” defensive lineman Wyatt Parker said of the fumble, then the score. “That shifted the momentum of the game.”
But Pitt State, behind the running of quarterback John Roderique — who gave the Tigers defense fits throughout the first half— marched down the field again only to punt. With 1:58 remaining, the Tigers got the ball at their own 1-yard line, trailing 17-7. Iheme busted loose to the 30, his second big gain of the quarter.
“I knew in order for us to be successful, I had to step up and make plays,” said Iheme, who had 28 carries for 189 yards. “I always give credit to the O-Line. They were just great tonight, opening up holes, being aggressive, being physical.”
The backup QB Williams wasn’t going to be outdone. On the next play after Iheme’s run, Williams hit tight end Matt Wendelberger on the home sideline, and the 6-foot-1, 245 pounder rumbled 70 yards for FHSU’s second score.
“It looked nice from my angle,” Williams said of the play. “It worked. They did exactly what we wanted them to do, and I guess we caught them slipping.”
The scoring toss came after Williams threw his pick on his first series in replacement of Mezera, who ended up going to the locker room to tend to his ankle injury.
“Nothing razzles him,” Brown said of the Tiger backup. “He just says cool and calm, and makes plays.
“When we needed him to step up, he stepped up,” the coach added. “Really proud of that young man.”
After the score, Pitt State took a knee to go into halftime with a 17-14 lead. The FHSU defense made some adjustments at halftime. Roderique used the read option for most of the first half as Pitt State chunked its way down the field on two scoring drives.
“Their O-Line was definitely physical, so they gave us problems up front,” Delgado said. “We just had to know our assignments. We weren’t hitting them right in the first half.”
Roderique had 131 rushing yards on 28 carries to lead the Gorillas, and was 12 of 28 passing for 139 yards. He hit several of his passes on slants over the middle to help Pitt State sustain drives. He even drove the Gorillas to the 9-yard line at the start of the fourth quarter, but the Gorillas missed a 25-yard field goal that would have put them up six. At that point, FHSU had enough. Iheme broke free for another long run, and Williams eventually hit senior receiver Tyler Bacon to set FHSU up at the 16-yard line. Williams ran it down to the 2 on third-and-long, and Iheme capped it off with his second TD to give FHSU its first lead.
“I kept looking at him and asked if he needed a break,” Brown said of Iheme. “He says ‘Let me have the ball, let me in there. I want to do everything I can do help this team win this ball game.”
The Tigers had a chance earlier to tie the game, but Brandon Brown missed a 35-yarder in the third quarter.
With a defensive battle the rest of the way, Iheme chewed up some clock. Pitt State got the ball back for its final try with one timeout remaining and 2:06 left. The Gorillas almost made it happen. Roderique took his team to the 18-yard line, and had three chances at the end zone.
“I’m glad we work it in practice every week — the two-minute,” Delgado said. “Corner, safeties, they did a good job holding off.”
On the final play, Tiger defensive end Nathan Shepherd got a rare hit on Roderique as the QB made an attempt at the end zone. The ball was knocked down, and the Tiger sideline erupted. The Tigers celebrated with fans on the field as the fireworks show went off.
While Brown celebrated with his team, he was amazed at the energy level in Lewis Field Stadium for the homecoming win, the first win at Lewis Field Stadium over Pitt State since a 35-30 victory on Oct. 14, 1978.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the great fan base we had today,” Brown said. “We can’t do it without them. Our fans are tremendous. The atmosphere was tremendous.”