There has never been a better time to be a part of the Division II football landscape in Kansas. Saturday night’s matchup between No. 15 Pittsburg State (2-1) and Fort Hays State (3-0) at Lewis Field Stadium is sure to give some insight as to why.
In the most recent AFCA Division II pool, all four Kansas schools were featured in the poll, with the Gorillas being the lone ranked team while 3-0 Emporia State, Fort Hays and 2-1 Washburn — who took down the Gorillas on the road last week — all receiving votes in the national poll.
Redshirt-freshman linebacker Jose Delgado, who played his high school ball in Derby, believes the facts and the quickly brewing rivalry between the Gorillas and Tigers speaks for how good football is in the state of Kansas.
“It should. I hope it does,” Delgado said at the Tigers’ weekly press conference Tuesday. “But we’ve still got a lot to prove, definitely for Fort Hays. Everyone still might think they underlook us, our size and our speed and what we can do, but hopefully we can prove that Saturday.”
Regardless of the state-wide success, Delgado and the 3-0 Tigers are on a mission to make another statement against their cross-state rivals. The Tigers ended a 20-game winless streak dating back to 1978 against the then-No. 8 Gorillas with a grueling 7-6 win at Carnie Smith Stadium. The Tigers have yet to beat the Gorillas at home in 36 years.
The only points for the Tigers came when then-junior quarterback Treveon Albert fired a 47-yard pass in the direction of Ed Williams on the first drive of the game. Pitt State’s DeVante Bausby came up with the pick but Williams was able to strip the ball loose and dive on it for a touchdown near the back of the endzone. Pitt knocked in a pair of field goals in the first half, but then-junior bandit Daniel Lindsey got around the edge and blocked a would-be go-ahead field goal in the winding minutes of the fourth quarter.
After having been tossed around like a rag doll by Pitt State for three decades, Lindsey, now a senior captain, said the Tigers are out to prove 2014 was not a fluke.
“We’ve definitely got something to prove,” Lindsey said. “We’re still out trying to earn our respect and get our respect in this league, because we won last year against them. It’s a new year, they’re a new team, a new quarterback. We’ve gotta be ready to go in all aspects of the game.”
The Tigers enter Saturday with their first 3-0 start since 2010 and first under fifth-year head coach Chris Brown.
With a win Saturday, the Tigers will have their best start since joining Division II (1991), their first 4-0 start since 1983 and an active seven-game winning streak.
Brown was a three-time All-American as a Gorilla in the ’90s. Defensive coordinator Cooper Harris, defensive line coach Ike Eguae and tight ends coach Zach Burkhart all spent time as players in Pittsburg as well.
Delgado said even though everyone is taking it as another game against another team, there is extra motivation with knowing who is lining up across the line of scrimmage form them.
“You can tell, especially with our coaches coming from Pitt State, that adds to the intensity of the game,” Delgado said. “We’ve got a chip on our shoulder and we wanna prove something to everyone. That’s where it’s gonna happen.”
Pitt State, though young with only 12 returning starters, began the season in the top 10 and breezed by Northeastern State and Lindenwood. The Gorillas and Ichabods were tied until Washburn pulled ahead with a touchdown in the waning seconds of the first half. The Ichabods jumped out to a 28-10 lead in the third quarter and were unable to overcome the final seven-point deficit, dropping their first game of the season and 11 spots in the polls.
Looking back at the game’s film, Brown noticed Washburn’s success came from a particular asset the Tigers have thrived on the past few games.
“I thought they did a good job of not stopping their run game but holding their run game to a minimum. They did a good job of stopping their play action passes,” Brown said. “… I thought Washburn played very, very physical compared to the previous games they played in and they did things well. They believed until the very end, they kept fighting, kept battling. … We’re gonna coach them to the best of our ability and hopefully do their assignments to the best of their ability and hopefully good things happen.”
The Gorillas returned six offensive starters, including senior All-American receiver Marquise Cushon. The 5-10 athletic speedster averaged 100 receiving yards per game with Anthony Abenoja, the 2014 Harlon Hill winner, under center. Sam Houston State transfer John Roderique, a junior quarterback for the Gorillas, has passed for nearly 600 yards at a 65-percent clip thus far, but his 200-plus yards and five touchdowns on the ground have been the engine in the Gorillas’ offense. With four new starters on the offensive line, the Ichabods were able to slow down the Gorillas’ rush attack to under 200 yards for the first time this year.
Pitt State has the second highest scoring and total offense in the MIAA while Fort Hays (16.3 points per game) has allowed the second fewest points thus far. The Tigers’ defense buckled down after a rough first half against Central Oklahoma and have allowed just 230.5 yards per game over their past two contests, which would be tops in the league.
The Pitt defense returns five All-MIAA honorees who started in 2014 and have recorded a league-high 12 sacks thus far to go with five interceptions. The Tigers have allowed just four sacks on offense and have paved the way for one of the nation’s top rushing offenses at 297 yards per game.
With the defense locked in after recording three interceptions and just seven points last week, a lot of the rhythm of the game will come with how Albert performs, especially early in the game when Albert has struggled most with his arm thus far, Brown said. The reigning MIAA Offensive Athlete of the Week went 9 of 19 for 101 yards and a 38-yard TD strike to senior Andrew Flory, adding a career-high 144 rushing yards.
“He just needs to play football like he can play football,” Brown said. “Last week he improved in the run game and he improved in the pass game. … This is about the time he starts to really click as a quarterback and be the quarterback that we really want. I’ve already seen him up here a ton watching film and just getting himself ready, getting himself prepared for Saturday.”
With redshirt-freshman receiver Codaryl Pandolfo breaking his fibula and tibia last week and junior running back Kenneth Iheme ruled out for the year with an ankle, Albert and sophomore Shaquille Cooper — the top two rushing leaders in the MIAA — and senior Derek Campbell will carry a heavy workload to keep the Tigers’ defense of the field. Along with winning the line off scrimmage — the Tigers have recorded seven sacks in the past two weeks — and preventing big plays, the Tigers must avoid costly penalties unlike Week 3 when the Tigers racked up an uncharacteristic 11 penalties for 106 yards.
With the team coming off as focused of a week of practice Brown said seen from his team, noting the Tigers “are starting to act like a team that is starting to know how to win,” Albert said the 15th-ranked Gorillas are just another team in their way of proving they belong among the elites of the MIAA and all of Division II — and surely in Kansas.
“They’re a really good, talented team but they’re just like us. They put on pads just like us. It’s gonna be another great game,” Albert said. “They’re nothing special to us.
… You can see that we’re doing stuff more fluently and we’re not thinking about stuff. As long as we’re doing that, I feel like we’re gonna keep winning. … We’ve got something to prove.”