When the Fort Hays State University Tigers take to Lewis Field Stadium on Thursday for the first time in 2015, they will do so with the memories of a thrilling 30-29 victory at Central Oklahoma to open the season well behind them.
While the celebration was fun while it lasted for sophomore running back and MIAA/AstroTurf Offensive Athlete of the Week, Shaquille Cooper, the Tigers (1-0) are not looking past Northeastern State (0-1). The RiverHawks are 2-21 since the start of the 2013 season and have lost 12 straight games heading into Hays on Thursday, including a 48-13 loss to FHSU last season. On the other hand, the Tigers’ win made noise across Division II football and led to the Tigers receiving two votes in the first regular season American Football Coaches Association poll.
“Going into this week, we’re trying to take it a week at a time,” said Cooper, who played a vital role for the Tigers’ offense with 195 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in Week 1. “The offense — we’re getting together, going over plays, learning new stuff to be able to beat this defense. We’re not gonna take these guys lightly even though they haven’t won a game in more than a year. I really think they’re a different team. I’m excited about this week. (It’s our) first home game. Everybody should be there.”
In last year’s contest, the RiverHawks got on the board first in the opening quarter before the Tigers scored 48 unanswered points. But Tigers head coach Chris Brown is as convinced as Cooper that the 2015 RiverHawks are indeed an improved football team, even after a 38-14 loss to then-No. 7 Pittsburg State in Week 1.
“I think that after watching film of Northeastern, they’re a much improved football team from last year,” said Brown, the fifth-year head coach of the Tigers. “I think our guys feel those things. You can see our captains practiced a little bit harder this week and focused in on getting our guys to focus in a little bit more as well. … Northeastern State’s really improved. They’re bigger, they’re stronger, they’re playing more physical.
“Their quarterback improved tremendously in a year’s time. … Their defense is a lot better than it was last year. They’re pretty sound on defense. It’s a totally different team than what we saw last year out at Northeastern.”
The RiverHawks returned just five offensive starters, including three offensive linemen back after allowing one of the highest sack rates in the country last season. Junior quarterback Kevin Pantastico completed 51.5 percent of his passes for 2,166 yards, though 14 balls were picked off while tossing just eight touchdowns on the lowest scoring offense in the nation (10.5 points per game). Their lone returning starter at a skill position is senior wideout Garrett Powell, who made 57 catches for 728 yards and five touchdowns.
Against a tough Pitt State defense, Pantastico was 20 of 44 for 275 yards, throwing a pair each of touchdowns and interceptions. Joel Rockmore, a senior running back who worked his way back in 2014 after suffering a season-ending injury in 2013, was third on the RiverHawks with 472 all-purpose yards and picked up 140 yards on offense, including one receiving touchdown. Powell had a team-high five receptions with 63 receiving yards.
Part of the growth Brown has seen in the RiverHawks’ offense is at the credit of Pantastico developing under center and containing him and other offensive weapons is key to the Tigers’ defense.
“If we can contain (Pantastico), get some pressure on him, try to get him real uncomfortable in the pocket, that would help us tremendously,” Brown said. “We’ve gotta do a good job of corralling Joel Rockmore, keeping him contained and not let him break off a big run. When they get in the pass game, we can’t allow him to catch the ball because he can go the distance if he does. We gotta keep Garrett Powell from making a big play on us because he’s a tremendous athlete as well.
“We gotta find a way to get some pressure on the quarterback and stop the run game. … Hopefully we can create some turnovers. If we do those things defensively, I think that will help us win the game.”
Senior Brock Long recorded a team-high 15 tackles against Central Oklahoma and feels the principle that helped his defense turn it around after going down 20-0 can lead the Tigers to better fortune throughout Thursday’s contest.
“It was a rough start but starting in the middle of the second quarter and all throughout after halftime I thought we really came together as one,” Long said. “We had each other’s backs and became the family that we always had been talking about leading up to that game. Coming into the game this week, we got to continue to work together and be one team, one family. … I thought that we didn’t tackle really well starting off our first game and that’s not something we can come out and do.”
Junior Kenneth Davis is the lone returning linebacker on the RiverHawks’ defense with three returners. Junior defensive lineman Dakota Moran anchors a line that allowed 224 rushing yards per game in 2014, the most in the MIAA and 154th of 167 teams.
The RiverHawks, though respected by the Tigers, allowed 334 yards on the ground to Pitt State, which ranks 151st of 160 Division II teams, and 456 yards of total offense. They will face one of the league’s and country’s best rushing attacks in Fort Hays State, who racked up 291 yards on the ground behind Cooper’s league-best 163 yards, the 13th-best output in the nation in opening week. Senior quarterback Treveon Albert also collected 94 rushing yards in Week 1 while completing 11 of 23 passes for 163 yards and three touchdowns, one of which came on a 9-yard reception by senior receiver Andrew Flory. In his Tiger debut, Flory hauled in 112 yards on seven catches with one touchdown.
The Tigers have recorded 1,056 rushing yards in their last four games, each of which have seen the Tigers rush for at least 234 yards.
Brown feels that the hot hands of Cooper and Albert have the ability to have big games against Northeastern if the offense can execute as it did the last 35 minutes against Central Oklahoma.
“We need to maintain and finish our blocks at the O-line and give our running backs a chance to hit the hole and see the hole and get vertical,” Brown said. “I think Shaquille Cooper’s gonna have another big week for us. Treveon needs to play great early, not wait until the second or third quarter to get himself going. He needs to start this game fast, uptempo, confident and perform at a high level early.”
To keep his team sharp heading into the game against a mildly struggling opponent, Brown tested his team with a mentally grueling week. The Tigers held a Sunday night practice followed by a 7 a.m. practice Monday and a testy practice Tuesday. With the work and focus put into preparing, Cooper feels the team greatly prepared and not feeling sorry for a team coming off an 0-11 season.
“Everybody’s been in practice working hard and telling each other this is not a sorry team,” Cooper said. “We can’t take this team for their weaknesses. We’ve been working hard this whole week. We’ve been getting ready for them guys. I think we’re ready.”
After ending 2014 on a three-game winning streak, a win Thursday would not only give the Tigers a five-game streak to match 2013 but would be the program’s first 2-0 start under Brown, with the most recent coming in 2010.
And with the potential for a packed house on a night game during the week coming off a last-second victory, Long is ready to give Hays a show in his final home opener as a Tiger.
“I’m really excited,” Long said. “This is my last home opener and it’s on Thursday night so I feel like we’re gonna have a pretty big crowd in the stands and a lot of support after the year we had last year.
“With the guys we got on this team and seeing what we could do towards the end of that game last week, I’m really excited to see what happens this week.”