The feeling is different this year.
Instead of being the hunter, now the Fort Hays State University football team is being hunted each week.
When you’re sitting at 7-0 and tied for the lead in the conference while bolting out to the school’s best start in 100 years, that’s to be expected.
It also has become expected for the Tigers to get the best battle each week as team’s try to knock them from the ranks of the unbeaten.
So as the Tigers take a No. 8 national ranking into Saturday’s 1 p.m. game at Missouri Western, the FHSU players know they have to be ready when they step on the field.
“It can at times. But at the end of the day, you have to tell yourself it’s still football,” senior receiver Tyler Bacon said about the target on their backs. “You’re still in the MIAA. You’re still playing the same games every year. You still have to focus in on taking it one down at a time.”
But Bacon and the Tigers don’t want it any other way.
“Definitely a better feeling now,” he said. “And I’d much rather have the target than not.”
The Tigers are tied atop the conference standings with perennial power and defending champ Northwest Missouri State. In order for the Tigers to remain perfect before taking on the Bearcats on the road Nov. 4, they first have to get through the Griffons and Emporia State — two of the top six teams in the league.
And Missouri Western hasn’t been the easiest place for the Tigers to play in history. Two years ago, the Tigers lost to the Griffons in a game where they felt they let one slip away.
The Griffons lead the all-time series, 11-14-1, and FHSU hasn’t won in St. Joseph, Mo., since 1982 under Jim Gilstrap, 15-13.
Last year’s 35-27 win in Hays snapped an 11-game losing streak to Missouri Western dating back to 2000 under then-head coach Jeff Leiker.
“I don’t know why,” Brown said referring to the struggles of playing on the road against the Griffons. “I don’t know if it’s the travel. … But we haven’t played well there. Two years ago is probably the best we’ve ever played there, and we end up losing the game — a game we probably shouldn’t have lost. But I think it’s just a maturity level. This group is more mature and takes things a little more serious. It’s later in the season, and they’re still focused and locked in and preparing for each game like it’s their last game. I think it’s just a different type of group here. Hopefully they do the things they need to play well once we get there.”
The Tigers will have to play well to come out with a win. The Griffons are 4-3 this year and sixth in the conference standings.
Missouri Western features the top running back so far in the conference in Josh Caldwell, who leads the MIAA with 784 yards on 125 carries and eight touchdowns.
“That’s tough,” junior defensive back Connor Shedeed said. “We’re really preparing for their running back. He’s really good, and their O-line is good. They’ve got a couple speedy receivers. Depending on what quarterback is in there, we just have to make adjustments during the game. It depends on what they’re beating us with and running against us. That’s all we can do there.”
The Griffons are the top rushing team in the conference as well, averaging 246.7 yards per outing — more than 40 yards better per game than Central Missouri (204.7).
“Just make sure we dominate the line of scrimmage and become sure tacklers when we have a chance to make a tackle,” Brown said. “Make sure we gang tackle, wrap up. On the other hand of it, you have to make sure you don’t fall asleep and give up a big play. That’s probably what scares you more than anything. Playing a team that runs so much, giving up that easy big play because you fell asleep might cost you the ball game. I think the guys up front are physical enough and fill their gaps well. … We haven’t seen a team that’s this run-heavy since Pitt. It will be a challenge for us. We just have to stay in our gaps and get off blocks and make tackles.”
But the Tigers have been strong against the run this fall, allowing only 85.4 yards per outing — second best in the MIAA to Northwest Missouri State’s 44.1.
“We just have to take care of one day at a time,” said Brown, who tied Wayne McConnell for second-most wins in his tenure with 45 following the Washburn victory. “We have to take care of one game at a time. And this is the most important game. If you don’t win this one, it could take you out of the regional rankings, take you out of a chance to win the conference. This is the one we have to focus on now. … You try not to look at it and not get caught up in it. It’s more about taking care of ourselves better and hopefully performing well on Saturday. That’s what it’s going to come down to.”
For the Tigers, winning on the road Saturday is another rung on the ladder they hope to continue to climb.
“We know we have to come out each week and perform,” said senior offensive lineman Donald Blackmon. “We know we can’t come out and think we’re going to roll every team we play. We have to treat each team as the next step and focus on that and not look too far ahead. One slip up, and we won’t be where we want to be.”