Saturday’s come-from-behind win against Pittsburg State University took an emotional toll on the Fort Hays State University football team.
FHSU coach Chris Brown reiterated that fact Tuesday when he spoke at his weekly news conference. FHSU still was riding a bit of an emotional high.
Traditionally, the Tigers haven’t played well the week following a big win against Pittsburg State.
Coach wasn’t going to deny that fact either.
Those bad weeks the past six years have just happened to come against this week’s opponent, and the Tigers need to come back down to earth in a hurry.
The No. 8 ranked and 6-0 Tigers will square off against Washburn (5-1) at 2 p.m. Saturday at Lewis Field Stadium.
Coming off the emotional rally during its homecoming last week, FHSU is guarding against a letdown heading into a huge matchup with the Ichabods.
“We’re not going to let one week get our head riled up,” sophomore tight end Matt Wendelberger said of the big win, which came in front of a capacity crowd. “We’re on a mission. We’re trying to be the best in the conference, win the conference.
“We just have to stay focused,” he added. “It’s just like climbing a ladder — one step at a time.”
On that metaphorical ladder, Washburn is a big rung. The Tigers understand if they want to have a chance at a conference title, Saturday is a must-have at home.
“We’re just going with the flow,” senior running back Kenneth Iheme said. “It’s hard because you know there’s distractions. Everybody’s talking about this and talking about that. We know we have talent on this team. We knew when we’re playing at the best of our ability, we can do great things.”
The Ichabods have played just as well as anyone, though, and have suffered just one loss, a 20-14 setback to No. 1 ranked and defending national champion Northwest Missouri State University, a team the Tigers have yet to play. Outside of that, the Tigers and Ichabods share four common opponents so far — wins against Missouri Southern, Pittsburg State, Lindenwood and Northeastern State.
“It’s a huge game this week,” Brown said. “When you watch them on the field, they’re a physical football team. They’re going to ground and pound, try to control the clock.”
Brown knows all too well what the Ichabods are capable of. The seventh-year Tiger skipper spent nine years as an assistant for the Ichabods and 16th-year head coach Craig Schurig. Washburn owns a 1-5 mark against the Tigers since Brown took over. The one victory came in 2015 in Hays. Only Northwest Missouri State has a better MIAA record against a Brown-coached team.
This year’s Tiger team, though, has found a way to win in just about every fashion. FHSU has blown teams out, won close games and even rallied the last two weeks after big early deficits.
“I think they’re playing well. I think they’ve built some confidence,” Schurig said. “We’ve had good things come out of each game we’ve played. Obviously, Hays is a really good team. I think our kids are excited to play a team like this.”
The teams are nearly identical in what they’ve done so far. Washburn is second in the MIAA at 35.8 points per game, while FHSU is fourth at 34. The Tigers sit second in the conference, giving up just 16 points per game, while Washburn is third, surrendering just 18.7 per outing. Only Northwest Missouri is better defensively.
“They’re always where they’re supposed to be,” Brown said of the Ichabods. “It’s going to be a tough physical ball game, and probably going to come down to the wire.”
FHSU has had that happen the last two weeks. The Tigers trailed at Lindenwood on three occasions before grabbing a three-point win, then rallied from 17-0 with backup quarterback Jacoby Williams last week against the Gorillas.
Junior starter Jacob Mezera should be back this week, Brown said, adding he probably could have made his way back on the field against Pitt State after an ankle sprain.
Speaking this week, the Ichabods were preparing for Mezera, who averages 235.7 passing yards per outing. He spreads the ball around to sophomore Layne Bieberle, junior Monterio Burchfield and senior Tyler Bacon — along with utilizing the tight ends and Iheme and Charles Tigner out of the backfield.
“One thing we noticed is they like to get the ball on the edge to their playmakers and just let them make plays in the open field,” Washburn senior defensive lineman Trey Parker said. “Which means, as a defense, we have to rally to the ball and just corral the ball carrier.”
Not many have been able to do that when the ball carrier is Iheme. His big outings the last two weeks have pushed the senior into second in the MIAA with 111 rushing yards per game. He is tied for the conference lead in rushing scores with eight.
Washburn counters with a run-heavy attack. The Ichabods average 192 rushing yards per contest and have 14 rushing TDs, second best in the conference. The Tigers, like always, still know they have to be ready for anything.
“They try to sleep teams. They try to sneak a couple passing plays,” said Tiger senior DB Kamon Clayton. “Just doing our assignment. Don’t let the run distract you, because they can pass the ball, they have good receivers.”
FHSU still will try to put together a complete game, something Brown said they haven’t done, with the exception of a blowout win in Week 2 against University of Central Missouri, or much like the Tigers did from the middle of the second quarter on last week.
“It’s some fine-tuning here and there. It really comes down to us players just relaxing,” Wendelberger said. “We had jitters. Homecoming, all the hoopla about being ranked. We just had to calm down and play Tiger football.”
The Topeka Capital Journal’s Rick Peterson Jr. contributed to this report.