When it came to Week 3 action, the parity of the MIAA finally showed. Northwest Missouri State scored a game-winning touchdown with 34 seconds to play to avoid dropping one at Central Missouri. Emporia State led by just three points late in the fourth quarter but knocked off Central Oklahoma by 10 on the road. Missouri Western trailed by seven late at Northeastern State before scoring two touchdowns in nine seconds to avoid a road upset. Most surprisingly, the Pittsburg State Gorillas dropped a home game to Washburn.
But it was the Fort Hays State University Tigers who seemingly had the most comfortable weekend, jumping out to a 30-0 lead at Lindenwood before moving to 3-0 with a 30-7 victory. With the Tigers off to their best start since 2010, there are many takeaways from their Week 3 win, but still improvements to be made before the Gorillas make their way to Hays on Saturday.
1. The Tigers’ offensive line deserves recognition
It’s true the big bodies up front rarely receive praise, but that is changing. The offensive live has allowed just four sacks through three games. It has also helped pave the way for the Tigers to run however they please with whomever they please at just under 300 yards per game.
When Malik Thomas went down in Week 1, the Tigers rushed for 291 yards. When the passing game was non-existent in Week 2, the line paved the way for 375 yards. When Shaquille Cooper was being swarmed against Lindenwood, Treveon Albert was able to scamper for just shy of 150 rushing yards.
But the Gorillas will be a true test for the experienced group. PSU’s Taye Irvin and Heath Wilson are All-Americans on the defensive line while Colby Hall has led the Gorillas to a league-high 12 sacks.
2. Uncharacteristic penalties can’t be made in close games
The Tigers were flagged 11 times Saturday. Wyatt Parker was flagged for an offside early in the game on a Lindenwood second and long and picked up a personal foul on Alex Schmidtberger’s interception return, negating a pick six. A false start by Mason Dickey, a veteran on the line, occurred on a second and 10.
Cooper and Albert were flagged for personal fouls after Albert picked up no yards on a rush attempt, forcing the Tigers to punt from deep in their own end zone.
A personal foul by Jordan Stangler, the Tigers’ punter, moved the Lions to their own 35 when they should have been on the 20. The Tigers were also penalized for a rare sideline interference, all things Chris Brown said need to be cleaned up following the game.
In the first two games, the Tigers were flagged just eight times for 56 yards. Saturday led to 106 penalty yards, and winning games against the MIAA’s top teams will become tough when penalty yardage totals more than passing yardage. Needless to say, don’t expect Brown to let his guys forget those penalties easily or let them happen again.
3. Turnovers have been friendly to the Tigers
The Tigers had a plus-six turnover margin last year and have forced nine turnovers thus far in 2015 — five fumbles, four interceptions. While their turnover margin is plus-four this season, they have allowed just six points off of their five turnovers (four fumbles, one interception).
Three of their offensive turnovers came in uncharacteristic form against Northeastern State, losing two fumbles on kick returns and Albert fumbling the first snap of the game after two hours of a rain delay on a wet field. Excuses or passes should not be given, but the Tigers are winning turnover battles and have been relatively clean about it.
While the passing game has yet to be widely used, Albert has thrown just one interception in three games, and it came in the end zone. While it might have been unfortunate to give up a touchdown from sniffing range of the goal line, a coach will take a interception in the opponent’s end zone than deep in their own territory when his team has the lead 10 times out of 10.
Pitt State also has a plus-four margin, giving away just one interception and fumble while recording one fumble recovery and five interceptions. Pittsburg’s only two turnovers came in Saturday’s loss to Washburn as they failed to turnover the Ichabods.
4. Special teams can make or break the Tigers
Special teams have done the Tigers good and bad through three games this season. The Tigers blocked one punt against Lindenwood — Pittsburg blocked two against the Lions — and two field goals against Northeastern. But Drew O’Brien has had a field goal of his own blocked and has missed two extra points. Pittsburg State had a field goal blocked against Northeastern, just as Fort Hays did.
In the season opener, Central Oklahoma missed an extra point against Fort Hays and lost by one point. They are now 0-3. It might not be a direct because of an extra point, but there is a correlation of not capitalizing on special teams and the kicking game and losing.
O’Brien is one of the best at kickoffs in the league, though, recording a league-high five touchbacks and 61.2 yards average per kickoff. The Tigers are also the best at kickoff returns at 26.1 yards per return.
When it comes to big-time games like the Tigers are about to play, the smallest things like fielding punts cleanly — Pitt muffed a punt against Washburn — and knocking in PATs go a long way.
5. The Tigers respond to coaching and wear confidence on their sleeve
Brown came into the season saying his team needed to put together a full game and play at it’s strongest in the fourth quarter in able to compete for their first MIAA championship.
In Week 1, the team responded with a five-minute drive capped by a game-winning field goal. When he wanted to see better play from his defensive line in the second week, they responded with four sacks. Brown wanted to see his team show up earlier in games, and the Tigers scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and recorded turnovers in three different quarter, including in the closing minutes.
The Tigers have not been shy to say they want to win a conference championship and get to the playoffs, and they know they have the talent to do so. Some of these guys were around when Fort Hays won just four games in Brown’s first year, and they have a chance to equal that total in as many weeks this weekend.
The Gorillas will come to Hays playing as if it is their last life, as just one team since 1989 has won the MIAA with more than one loss in MIAA play — Central Missouri was 7-2 in the MIAA in 2003 and won the conference title.The Gorillas have lost back-to-back games just once in the past four season, and Fort Hays has not started 4-0 since 1983.
The Tigers have won just one of the past 20 meetings. But that was just last season.