Putting aside all the hoopla surrounding this week might be a little easier said than done for members of the Fort Hays State University football team.
But that’s what the Tigers have been focused on. They know they just have to take care of what they can control.
FHSU, the No. 4 ranked team in NCAA Division II, is treating Saturday’s 1 p.m. kickoff at Lewis Field Stadium against Ferris State (Mich.) just like any other contest.
There’s no need to change things now, seventh-year Tiger head coach Chris Brown said. After all, the Tigers were able to figure out a winning formula in an 11-0 run through the ever-powerful MIAA.
Now, the conference’s champion and Super Region 3’s top seed is the lone remaining MIAA team in the field of 16 entering FHSU’s first playoff appearance since 1995 and the program’s first postseason game on its home field.
The stage couldn’t be bigger for a program that once was considered mediocre in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. But Brown wasn’t going to talk about the implications of the game with his guys. He just wants them to stay focused on what has got them to this point.
He told them: “If you prepared yourself when you go to a game, you should be confident in your abilities and confident that you know where they’re going to try to attack you,” Brown said. “If we do those things this week, the confidence level should be there.”
Winning the MIAA and earning the region’s top seed carries a little bit of weight in itself. The conference boasts the last two national titles from Northwest Missouri State University, and the Bearcats had played in 10 title games since 1998, winning six of them. The conference also boasts one more national champion in that span, with Pittsburg State winning it all in 2011.
FHSU views this week as the first step in taking its chance to representing one of Division II’s power conferences.
“Just shows our conference is tough,” Brown said. “Our region right now, it is a tremendous, tremendous region.”
Ferris State (10-1) made the regional championship game a year ago. Already, the fourth-seeded Bulldogs own a 24-19 win over Ouachita Baptist in last week’s playoff opener. Ferris State was the runner-up from the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Conference champion Ashland University is on the other side of the regional bracket as the No. 3 seed. The Bulldogs, statistically, were the conference’s best team. They average 438.8 yards per game (241 through the air and 234 on the ground). They thrive on the play of not one, but two mobile quarterbacks.
“Not allowing the quarterback to run north and south,” Tiger senior defensive end Nathan Shepherd said of defending Ferris. “Lot of their run game will try to run to the boundary or run it outside. Definitely going to be a great matchup. Looking forward to it a lot.”
The Tiger defense finished second in the MIAA, allowing just 13.8 points per game, only surrendering 18 touchdowns all season. They were second best behind Northwest Missouri in rushing and passing defense, meanwhile boasting one of the best offenses the conference had to offer.
Senior running back Kenneth Iheme was the MIAA’s rushing champion, netting 1,228 yards and 11 scores.
A win Saturday, he said, will take more of what’s been working — pounding the ball on the ground and airing it out from junior Jacob Mezera to MIAA first-teamer Monterio Burchfield, along with sophomore Layne Bieberle and a plethora of other weapons in FHSU’s arsenal. The Tigers averaged 452.9 yards per game and 33.4 points. Mezera has thrown for 2,654 yards with 22 scores, with Burchfield on the receiving end 44 times for 911 yards and eight scores.
“As we keep going, we’re going to keep playing better teams,” Iheme said. “That just comes with it. They have experience. They have some big guys. But just like everybody else, they are beatable.”
The Bulldogs’ offensive line consists of all 300-pounders, a size advantage Shepherd said could cause issues.
“They have some big guys definitely up front,” Shepherd said. “Fairly mobile as well, and they are going to play with some aggression.”
While Ferris State was in this position last season, Brown said the Tigers’ past experience — a bowl trip two seasons ago and a bowl victory last season — should help in the Tigers’ first playoff appearance. In addition, he said, FHSU basically has been in playoff mode through the tough MIAA slate.
“We have to go in there with confidence,” Brown said. “You’re there for a reason. Ferris State is a very good football team, and Fort Hays State is a very good football team. Our guys oughta know that.”
If FHSU is able to get a win, the Tigers will be at home again next week for a regional final against either GLIAC champion Ashland or seventh-seeded Harding, which took out No. 2 seed Indianapolis in the first round.
Winning this first one not only will advance FHSU, but also give the program its first playoff victory. FHSU is 0-2 in playoff games.
“It’s just big for our community,” Brown said. “Big for the whole town of Hays. We have to go find a way to win this ball game and represent our program well.
“Put ourselves on the map.”