FHSU football -- Brown enters Year 3 in development of program
By CONOR NICHOLL
Craig Schurig inherited one of the weaker MIAA programs when he became the head football coach at Washburn University before the 2002 season. In his first year, Schurig led the Ichabods to a 3-8 record. The next season, Washburn moved to 5-6.
In 2004, Washburn broke through with an 8-4 record, the Ichabods' first winning season since 1999 and the first postseason victory since 1986 with a 36-33 win against Northern State in the Mineral Water Bowl. Now, Schurig has turned Washburn into a top-25 powerhouse that has made playoff trips or bowl appearances on a near-annual basis.
"Year 3, there is a fine line in that year," Schurig said.
Missouri Western State University coach Jerry Partridge is now the Griffons' all-time winningest coach. Last fall, he led Missouri Western to its first outright MIAA championship.
However, Partridge, now in his 17th year, hoped to keep his job. Partridge finished 5-6 in his first two seasons, including a big upset against Pittsburg State University late in the second season. In addition, Partridge had a new athletic director, which made his job situation a little tenous.
"I thought they would fire me after one," he said. "I thought they would fire me after two. I think going into Year 3, I was a little nervous about that part."
The third season, Missouri Western went 7-4 and played stride for stride with powers University of Central Missouri and Northwest Missouri State University. Partridge's third year gained momentum for creating one of Division II's top programs.
While not in his third season, Emporia State's Garin Higgins enjoyed a five-win improvement to 10-2 in his sixth year last fall. It was the Hornets' best season since 1989.
"For us, even the years where I felt like we were 5-6, I felt like we were a good football team," Higgins said. "Again, I think that's still shows you the balance of the MIAA and how tough it is. But for us, I think we had a great senior class, meaning that we had a lot of those players that really were a part of the rebuilding process."
This fall, Fort Hays State University starts Year 3 under coach Chris Brown, who was Washburn's defensive coordinator when the Ichabods built the program. FHSU was 3-8 in 2010 and has posted 4-7 and 5-6 marks the last two falls. For many coaches, Year 3 is when the program starts to turn the corner.
"Year 3 is tough because you are getting some of the guys that you put the time in and recruited and from the old staff yet, probably seniors, and you hope that they blend together," Schurig said.
Partridge and Schurig -- the current deans of MIAA coaches -- and Higgins, whose Hornets accomplished one of the biggest MIAA turnarounds in recent league history, discussed what factors were needed for building a program and making a jump at conference Media Day in early August.
All three said winning close games, winning at least one game against a top-tier opponent and strong quarterback play were the top reasons. Schurig especially pointed out offensive and defensive line play -- an area he felt FHSU is a little behind the top teams. Scheduling is a factor, too.
"(FHSU) definitely have some guys in place, that you are like, 'Yeah, they are as good as anybody we play,'" Schurig said. "Their kids played hard up front, but when you play Missouri Western or Northwest Missouri or some of those schools, their defensive front was better."
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Under Brown, FHSU is 9-13, but has lost three home games by three points or fewer and hasn't beaten a top-tier opponent.
"When you look at our conference now, going into next year, there is a couple teams that as the season goes on, you will say, 'Yeah, those are the two best,' " Schurig said. "You are not quite sure who it is going to be, but the teams kind of separate themselves. There are six or seven teams, they are all very equal. Some teams are just winning those games and getting the breaks that they need to and just getting the job done, and the other ones are just not getting the job done."
On the whole, teams normally split half of their "close" games. However, to make a jump, a team likely has to improve their record in close contests. In 2003, Washburn went 2-2 in games decided by 14 points or fewer. They also finished minus-6 in turnover margin and averaged 25.8 points, 198.9 passing yards and 372 total yards a game.
In 2004, Washburn went 3-1 decided by 14 points or fewer and improved to plus-12 in turnover margin, Offensively, the Ichabods averaged 33.9 points, 249.2 passing yards and 424 total yards a game with quarterback Tyler Schuerman. Missouri Western made its jump with Kasey Waterman, who left the Griffons as the MIAA's all-time leading passer.
"To win at any league, to win at any level, that's got to be an outstanding position for you," University of Central Missouri coach Jim Svoboda said of quarterback. "I can't think of any championship-level team that haven't had a very good player at that position."
Last year, Emporia State had a big year from veteran Tyler Eckenrode, who eventually earned all-Region honors.
"You do have to have consistent play where you don't have to bring somebody in to replace him, or play musical chairs at quarterback," Higgins said. "I have been down that road before, and it's not really fun."
Like Washburn, Emporia State had a big uptick in passing yards en route to its turnaround. In 2011, ESU averaged 30.5 points and 243.8 passing yards per contest. The Hornets finished 2-4 in games decided by 14 points or fewer.
Last year, ESU averaged 35.8 points, 321.8 passing yards and went 5-0 in games decided by 14 points or fewer. The Hornets had a one-point difference in scoring defense and had a worse turnover margin in 2012 than 2011.
Fort Hays has started three QBs in two years under Brown and has been average under center compared to the rest of the conference. Last year, the Tigers averaged 23 points and 173.8 passing yards per contest. FHSU went 5-3 in games decided by 14 points or fewer. This season, sophomore Treveon Albert will start under center.
"It is Treveon's team," Tiger junior running back Edward Smith said. "He runs the team. We feed off of him. If he does everything correct, we do everything correct. It's all on him."
Partridge pointed to a close loss to Northwest Missouri in Year 3 as a big confidence booster for his team. Schurig said a road win at a quality Missouri Southern team helped change the tide.
"It comes to confidence eventually," Schurig said. "You have to have the talent in place, and if you win one of those games against an upper echelon team, then your kids start to believe 'We can beat anybody,' and then you win another one and another one."
For Emporia, the big win came in Week 6. The Hornets were 5-0 and traveled to 1-4 Southwest Baptist (Mo.) University. ESU fell down 15-0 at halftime. Eckenrode was hurt. In the second half, he had no ability to run the ball. Still, he guided Emporia State to a 19-15 victory.
"It's easy for them to buy in when things are going well, but we faced some adversity and our players stuck together and defensively, we got stops when we need to," Higgins said.
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Finally, scheduling can have a big impact on improvement -- and this plays a big role for Fort Hays in 2013. In Emporia's 5-6 season in 2012, the Hornets went 0-4 against ranked teams. Last year, the Hornets finished 0-2 against ranked teams with both losses coming late in the season.
This fall, MIAA teams play zero, one or two non-conference games because of the unbalanced schedule. Fort Hays is one of three of the 14 MIAA teams that plays two non-conference games, both at home, according to D2football.com. As well, FHSU faces bottom-feeder Lincoln (Mo.) University on the road and gets Southwest Baptist, another struggling program, at home.
Since 2006, Fort Hays is 9-2 in non-conference games and 4-1 against SBU and Lincoln combined. The Tigers also face Emporia State in the season opener Sept. 5. The home team has won each game in the series since 2005.
The Tigers also get University of Nebraska-Kearney at home and face two teams on the road, Central Missouri and Lindenwood, that they narrowly lost to last year.
Fort Hays will face three national powers in Washburn, Northwest Missouri and Missouri Western. As powerful as the conference is, upsets do happen.
Last season, MIAA teams were just 35-41 at home in league games, and just 24-22 in 2011.
Last season, three of Division II's top five upsets belonged to the MIAA, according to masseyratings.com. Oct. 13 featured 6-5 Missouri Southern defeating Missouri Western, 31-30, on the road, easily Division II's No. 1 upset.
With a couple close wins, improved quarterback play and some helpful scheduling, FHSU could win more than six games for the first time since a 7-3 mark in 1996.
"If you can get some of those wins that were losses the year before, those tight games, and turn the corner, Year 3 is the year that you start to see that," Schurig said.