One thing Fort Hays State University football coach Chris Brown hasn’t had to do much of through the Tigers’ 9-0 run is get on the Tigers to try harder.
He hasn’t spent much time yelling in anyone’s ear, giving anyone a reaming, and hasn’t had to hold anyone’s hand to make sure the Tigers are where they are supposed to be.
Part of that, he says, is by design. The other part is just the group of players FHSU has. They already know what’s expected and the group has been driven all season to get to where they want to be — atop the MIAA and atop the nation in NCAA Division II.
It’s allowed Brown and his coaching staff to take a calmer approach this season, a mantra that’s paid off.
He’s not about to change those ways now as FHSU gets ready for its biggest game since joining the MIAA. At this point, he shouldn’t have to amp up the Tigers for the biggest game of their careers. FHSU, ranked No. 6 in the nation and No. 1 in NCAA Division II Super Region 3, will face two-time defending national champion and MIAA juggernaut Northwest Missouri State, the No. 8 ranked team in the country, at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Bearcat Stadium in Maryville, Mo.
The Tigers, Brown said, will be ready to play, regardless of what the coaches say prior to Saturday’s kick.
“I have all the faith in the world in them,” Brown said. “I know they can if they play to their potential and play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
In some ways, Brown’s career at FHSU has been building to this game, even though win or lose, FHSU still has the bigger picture in mind. Still, going into a place the visitors rarely win and having the shot at an MIAA title rarely not won by Northwest Missouri State should be enough to get the nerves going a little bit.
That hasn’t been a problem all year, though, as the Tigers continue to reach new program heights each week.
“I tell the young guys all the time we came in at the perfect time,” Tiger junior defensive back Doyin Jibowu said. “There’s no better time to be a Tiger.
“I’m just blessed to come in at this perfect time to be making this transition from one of the mediocre teams to one of the top teams in the conference.”
The next step, of course, is to take out Northwest Missouri State, something a Brown coached team hasn’t been able to do in his previous six seasons — now the only MIAA team the Tigers have yet to beat. But it is a rarity for any team in the MIAA.
Northwest Missouri State on Saturday saw its 38-game winning streak snapped at the hands of Pittsburg State University, a 20-10 victory for the Gorillas in Pittsburg.
The Tigers wanted to be the team to knock the Bearcats off, but it doesn’t take anything away from Saturday’s bout, arguably the top matchup in Division II this weekend.
“It’s something we’ve been looking for. I wanted to be that team that went down there and did that,” Brown said. “They’re going to be hungry now to get the win.”
Despite the fact Northwest saw its win streak snapped and hasn’t put up the big offensive numbers Bearcat faithful have grown used to, the defending champs have got it done with defense. Northwest leads the country in four statistical categories, is second in another and seventh in one more. While FHSU has a grown target on its back with the recent success, Northwest’s has been there for the better part of two decades. FHSU goes into Saturday’s contest ranked higher. It’s the first time since 2011 that the Bearcats will play at home a team ranked higher in the regular season.
““I promise you that our kids will hang loose and play a football game Saturday,” NWMS coach Rich Wright told the St. Joseph News-Press this week. “I can’t tell you what the outcome is going to be, but I can tell you that for the first time in two and a half years not being the favorite, I’m okay with it.”
To further illustrate what the Tigers have in front of them, Northwest hasn’t lost back-to-back games since 2001. They also haven’t allowed a rusher to reach 100 yards in three-plus seasons. Fort Hays, though, has two of the top five rushers in the conference, including senior Kenneth Iheme, who leads the MIAA with 1, 029 yards and 10 scores. Charles Tigner ranks fifth with 584 yards.
“They are not somebody that you can just say that we’re going to delete this or we’re going to take this away and we’re going to be fine,” Wright told the News-Press. “We’re going to have to be good on all three levels. You’re playing an opponent who is upper echelon on the offensive side and the defensive side as far as points scored and points allowed. We better be on point Saturday.”
Northwest offensively hasn’t been the juggernaut of the past. The Bearcats rank ninth in the conference with 152.3 rushing yards per game and sit eighth in scoring at just 26.9 points per outing. FHSU, defensively, sits second behind the Bearcats at 14.8 points allowed per game.
“They have some new guys in there. New quarterback. Hopefully we can get him rattled a little,” Jibowu said of Northwest. “You have to prepare for anything and prepare for everyone’s best.”
The Tigers have played with that mentality ever since earning the program’s first ranking in program history in the AFCA Division II poll. The Tigers have continued the climb, despite the difficult slate. Saturday is the most difficult so far.
“They’re not satisfied with how they’re playing. That’s just the type of kids we have,” Brown said. “They want to be excellent — win the conference championship, win a national championship. They know it’s going to take a lot of work to get there.”