EDMOND, Okla. — As the third quarter of Thursday night’s matchup between the Fort Hays State University football team and University of Central Oklahoma unwinded, Tiger head coach Chris Brown engaged in a full sprint down the Tigers’ sideline toward the end zone.
Brown claims he caught sophomore running back Shaquille Cooper before his 79-yard run ended in a touchdown. If the legend stands true, Brown might have been the only one of 7,189 in Wantland Stadium in Edmond able to catch Cooper in Fort Hays’ 30-29 win to open the 2015 campaign.
The Tigers grabbed a 27-23 lead on a 6-yard touchdown reception by Cooper. A missed PAT by senior kicker Drew O’Brien left the Bronchos within four points with five minutes to play in the third quarter.
After trading drives over the next 10 minutes of play, the Bronchos grabbed the lead on a 19-yard touchdown pass by reigning MIAA Freshman of the Year quarterback Chas Stallard. But with a chance at a three-point lead, a second UCO missed PAT failed. With one blocked earlier in the game, the eventual deciding point clinked off the left upright.
The Tigers got the ball back with 5:01 to play and set up O’Brien for redemption with a 19-yard chip shot as the clock read nothing but zeroes. The kick clinched Fort Hays its first 1-0 start since 2011, Brown’s first season at the helm of the program.
“You know, there’s nervousness no matter how many kicks you’ve made or missed,” O’Brien said. “What I was really think is, ‘This is a chance to make up for that missed kick.’ ”
Trailing 13-0 in the first quarter and looking for any answers against a highly-touted Central Oklahoma team — which was picked third in the MIAA by coaches — the Tigers instead seemed to find more questions. The next offensive play following the UCO touchdown that extended the lead to 13-0 ended with redshirt-freshman running back Malik Thomas clenching his right knee and out of the game.
With No. 1 running back Kenneth Iheme ruled out prior to the game, Cooper’s role changed from splitting carries with Thomas to carrying the offensive workload with senior wideout Andrew Flory.
Cooper finished his return to the Tigers with 163 rushing yards on 21 carries and one rushing touchdown of 79 yards. The sophomore workhorse also caught two passes for 32 yards and two scores.
“It was tough. At first, I was trying to get a hole and get back into that feeling,” Cooper said. “I haven’t played in two years so that feeling, having game mode go on is like, ‘Awe, I gotta get goin’.’ The offense — we finally we clicked. We told each other we could do it. The defense got tired and that’s when we wanted to pound it and pound it. There isn’t a better feeling than being out on that field playing after two years.”
For the past two years, Cooper had not attended school after leaving for academic reasons. On Thursday night, one would have thought he was the team’s No. 1 back in his senior year.
“You give him the ball anytime and he’s gonna have a chance to break it,” Brown said. “He’s got some speed. I think I caught him on that long run. I told him I caught him, anyway.
“He’s just a tremendous football player. … He’s blessed with some talent and he’s gotta understand to use that talent to his ability and he did a great job with it. He’s just a tremendous kid, a hard working kid who’s very dedicated to this program and he’s gonna continue to stay on the football field as long as he can.”
After transferring from Central Michigan, Flory made a crucial play in the second quarter to spark the offense. Cooper scampered upfield for a 21-yard gain before senior quarterback Treveon Albert connected with senior wide receiver Andrew Flory on a 44-yard pass down the sideline to put the Tigers in striking distance. Facing a long third down and a 20-point deficit, Albert connected with Flory for a 9-yard score to put the Tigers on the board with 3:44 to go in the first half. The PAT by O’Brien gave him the school record for career point-after conversions with 108.
With a new start on a new team, Flory showed no sign of nerves. The 6-foot, 185-pound wideout grabbed a team-high seven receptions for a game-high 112 yards and a touchdown.
“I definitely had a lot of nervousness, a lot of butterflies, but I feel like butterflies mean you’re ready,” Flory said. “I wanted to show this team and these guys that I was the real deal. I just wanted to give it my best and all of my effort.”
The Tigers got the ball back with just under two minutes remaining and marched down the field to cap the drive with a dump-off by Albert to Cooper near the sideline for a 26-yard score to cut the deficit to seven at half.
The Bronchos opened the second half with a field goal capping a 17-play, 79-yard drive. The Tigers answered two plays later on the 79-yard dash up the middle by Cooper, giving him his second TD on the evening.
Down 23-21, Albert and Cooper connected a second time on a 6-yard pass to take the lead for the first time.
While his stats didn’t necessarily compare to Stallards’ 29 of 39 for 281 yards and three touchdowns, Albert’s legs and arm helped the team convert multiple third downs. With the help of Flory and Cooper, Albert finished 11 of 23 for 163 yards and three touchdown passes to go with 97 rushing yards.
Though he is new to the MIAA, Flory understands what knocking off UCO means to the his new teammates.
“I knew that this team wanted to start off to a fast pace,” Flory said. “I heard that they really didn’t give us our credit in the rankings so I guess beating this team was a step in the right direction for this team. We’re just ready to take this thing the whole season and see how it goes. … I’m excited for this team. I see the enthusiasm in everybody’s eyes, the coaches, these fans that travel with us to these away games. I’m just ready to get these W’s for this team.”
Cooper and Flory might get the game balls, but the Tigers’ defense answered after Flory’s touchdown with a three-and-out. Even with allowing 510 yards of offense, the Bronchos were held to 29 points due to six forced fumbles and four that went the way of the Tigers. The fumbles were uncharacteristic for UCO, as just five fumbles were recovered by opponents all of last season. Two of the fumbles came within feet of the end zone and kept the Bronchos’ offense relatively at bay.
“On defense we created some turnovers — offense capitalized on a few of those things,” Brown said. “Two of those were inside the five and that’s huge when our defense does that for us and doesn’t allow them to score. If they score there, it’s a totally different ballgame.”
“Them getting turnovers gave us the momentum,” Cooper added. “They got the offense going. We told each other we could do it.”
Senior linebacker Brock Long finished with 14 tackles with junior linebacker Alex Schmidtberger recording nine solo tackles on the way to 11 total. Junior safety DeAndre James, who was praised for his play in last year’s victory against Pitt State, recorded 13 tackles and had one fumble recovery.
Keeping the loss column blank after Week 1 has not been a reality for the past three seasons. Brown admits that it is a monumental win.
“That’s huge. You know our kids are already talking about, ‘Coach, it’s been a long time since we won our first game,’ and it has been,” Brown said. “I’m just proud of our kids and the way they bounced back. … We finally finished a game and that’s something we have done in a while. Fourth quarter came around and … they finished.
“I can see this giving us momentum going into this next week. … It’s time to go to work again.”
The Tigers play host to Northeastern State (Okla.) University in Thursday’s 7 p.m. Kickoff Classic at Lewis Field Stadium.
Fort Hays 30, Central Oklahoma 29
Game in figures
First downs 20 28
Rushing 42-291 50-229
Passing 11-23-0 29-39-0
Passing yards 163 281
Total plays-yards 65-454 89-510
Punts-avg. 6-36.5 3-40
Penalties-yards 6-36 5-40
Fumbles-lost 2-1 6-4
FHSU (1-0, 1-0) 0 14 13 3 — 30
UCO (0-1, 0-1) 13 7 3 6 — 29
UCO — Crockett 4 pass from Stallard (Hiddink kick).
UCO — McKenzie 1 run (Hiddink kick blocked).
UCO — Locke 21 pass from Stallard (Hiddink kick).
FHSU — Flory 9 pass from Albert (O’Brien kick).
FHSU – Cooper 26 pass from Albert (O’Brien kick).
UCO — Hiddink 18 field goal.
FHSU — Cooper 79 run (O’Brien kick).
FHSU — Cooper 6 pass from Albert (O’Brien kick failed).
UCO — Pulley 19 pass form Stallard (PAT failed).
FHSU — O’Brien 19 field goal.
UCO — McKenzie 15-85, Stallard 18-75, Gandara 12-38, Johnson 4-31, Luper 1-0.
FHSU — Cooper 21-163, Albert 14-94, Thomas 3-24, Campbell 3-13, Pandolfo 1-(minus-3).
UCO — Stallard 29-39, 281 yards.
FHSU — Albert 11-23, 163 yards.
FHSU — Flory 7-112, Cooper 2-32, Jennings 1-15, Bacon 1-4.
UCO — Locke 5-73, Luper 9-71, Pulle 3-63, McKenzie 5-49, Moss 3-17, Crockett 1-4, Gandara 3-4.