Just prior to 7 p.m. Thursday, a storm rolled through Hays. At 9:15 p.m., Northeastern State senior running back Joel Rockmore sent a shockwave to the remaining Tigers fans with a 7-yard touchdown against the Fort Hays State defense.
As the rain and thunder passed over Lewis Field Stadium, the Tigers’ offense nearly went with it, putting together a foggy first half. But for the second consecutive week, it was sophomore running back Shaquille Cooper who gave the Tigers a strike of lightning, this time on a bolting 93-yard run with under three minutes to play to rid the clouds from a potential loss and give Fort Hays a 27-13 victory and 2-0 start to the season.
“Before that long run, I told (senior quarterback Treveon Albert), ‘Same thing as last week. We gotta do it. We can’t lose this game,’ ” Cooper said following Thursday night’s win. “The same as last week, you know. I saw it and I just went.
“After I ran like 10 yards, I saw the linebacker was overflowing kinda hard. Coach had been telling me all game to stick my feet in the ground and get upfield and that’s what I did. He overran and I stuck my feet in the ground, got upfield and saw daylight.”
Cooper led the Tigers to a Week 1 victory against Central Oklahoma with 195 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns, highlighted by a 79-yard scamper to cap off the MIAA’s best offensive showing. But after exploding onto the scene in his first game in more than two years, the Coral Gables, Fla., native sent a message to the rest of the conference that he is for real, collecting 263 yards on the ground on an exhausting 29 carries that led to him suffering cramps as the game wore on.
“I told him before we went out — I said, ‘Shaq, I expect 250 from you,’ ” senior linebacker Brock Long said. “‘I don’t care how many times you score, I need 250 yards.’ ”
Cooper stepped into the spotlight in Edmond, Okla., after No. 1 running back Kenneth Iheme, a junior, sat out to nurse an ankle injury and No. 2 running back Malik Thomas, just a redshirt-freshman, suffered a torn ACL in the first quarter that will sideline him for the entirety of 2015. Knowing the load was on him with senior Derek Campbell available for relief, he had no intentions of letting his team down.
“It was pretty tough coming out of halftime. I felt the cramps coming. It just reminded me of last week,” Cooper said. “I was like, ‘Come on, not now. This is the wrong time for it to come, right now.’ … I feel like I should have scored more than one touchdown today. I couldn’t get my feet, it was kinda slippery. Everything happened for a reason.”
After dropping nearly 30 degrees in a matter of minutes, lightning and rain surrounded Hays for the better part of an hour and a half, suspending the 7 p.m. kickoff for two hours. The delay resulted in the removal of media timeouts and five less minutes of halftime to get it completed before midnight.
The storm affected games played in Emporia and Topeka later in the evening and postponed the games to Friday and Saturday finishes. Emporia State’s contest with Central Missouri was suspended at halftime with a tie game at 24 apiece and will resume at 2 p.m. Saturday. In Topeka, the Ichabods were leading 27-7 until play was suspended when tornado sirens began to go off with 11:59 remaining in the third quarter against Nebraska-Kearney.
From the opening whistle, head coach Chris Brown saw the effect the weather delay had on both teams and how it allowed a team with 12 straight losses entering Thursday’s game to hang with the Tigers.
“On both ends, on our side and their side, you’re sitting there, you just warmed up, you’re getting ready to play a game. They’re fired up, they’re amped up, you’re getting into your pregame speech and all of a sudden you get a call saying we’re gonna postpone it for a while,” Brown said. “Then you’re figuring out how to play so that does play a part it in. The kids got ready, then they postponed it again. They got ready again, they postponed it again. That plays on their emotions a bit.”
Battling a Northeastern State team Brown thought was much improved was made more difficult with three key players sidelined with injuries. Thomas is done for the season, junior cornerback Rashad Dunnigan is feared to be down with a leg injury and senior linebacker Justin McPhail’s return could be lengthy after having surgery on his nose.
But Campbell played timely snaps, picking up 60 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries. Junior linebacker and captain Alex Schmidtberger started in place of McPhail and led the Tigers’ defense — along with Long — with 13 tackles while tallying three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Redshirt-freshman Bobby Stinson, though he was exploited a few times, made a key pass breakup and a fumble recovery as a starter Thursday.
And while Cooper ran away with the eventual game-winning touchdown, it was the defense that helped keep the RiverHawks at bay after a hot start and lead the Tigers to victory in the second half.
After blocking a PAT in the first half, the Tigers came out and blocked a NSU field goal in the fourth quarter. The Tigers had a field goal of their own blocked in the third. The Tigers also lost three fumbles, one on the Tigers’ first play from scrimmage by Albert — who finished just 6 of 14 passing for 37 yards — and a pair on kick returns by junior DeAndre James and redshirt-freshman Cordaryl Pandolfo.
“That’s a huge part of the game,” Brown said. “We can’t have those field goals blocked. That’s points on the board. It’s just getting things sured up in what we’re doing and being focused. I think we lost a little bit of focus tonight … but we gotta clean things up and get a lot better.”
The RiverHawks got on the board when a blocked field goal resulted in a recovery by NSU to pick up a first down. Rockmore capped the 13-play, 66-yard drive with the aforementioned 7-yard score.
After trading drives, the Tigers got on the board on a 36-yard field goal by senior Drew O’Brien to cut into the NSU lead with under two minutes to play in the first quarter.
NSU junior quarterback Kevin Pantastico, who threw 23 of 43 for 192 yards, threw his lone touchdown midway through the second to junior wideout Jamari Pope for a 9-yard score.
A forced punt by the Tigers’ defense resulting in a field goal just before half marked the turning point in the game, Long said. From that point on, Northeastern accumulated just 139 yards of offense and turned the ball over on multiple occassions.
“That’s when we started making a few big plays, a couple big hits,” Long said. Once that stuff happened, that really got the defense together. We gave up a couple big plays that led to touchdowns, a few flags that we shouldn’t have had, just not watching the ball. Once we got all that out, we were good after that.”
“I think we came out a little flat,” Schmidtberger added. “Once we got everything straightened out, it was us. The score doesn’t say that but we played real well.”
The Tigers ended the first half on an 11-play, 88-yard drive capped by an O’Brien field goal to send the Tigers to the locker room down by seven.
The opening kickoff return of the second half by James resulted in a fumble recovery and turnover on downs for Northeastern. After putting up 103 rushing yards in the first half, the Tigers continued to feed Cooper early in the second half. With 11 minutes to play in the third quarter it paid off, as Campbell punched in a touchdown after Cooper went to the sideline with cramps. Cooper picked up 27 yards on three carries prior to the Campbell touchdown to tie the game at 13 apiece.
All scoring stalled until Cooper’s earth-shattering 93-yard run to give the Tigers their first lead of the contest. Each of the Tiger victories came after facing double-digit deficits. Despite a 2-0 record, the Tigers have led for less than 10 of their 120 minutes played.
With the beef of the Tigers’ schedule approaching, Brown said his offense has to work on supporting Cooper with a passing game in order to continue keeping a clean loss column and it starts with focus in practice.
“I told them we need to start early on our opponent and figure out what they’re doing to us so in practice, they’re prepared and they’re ready to go,” Brown said. “We gotta find a way to get our pass game going. We can’t just rely on the run because people are gonna start packing the box and once they do that it’s hard to run the ball.”
After another turnover on downs by Pantastico and the RiverHawks, Campbell punched in his second TD from 9 yards out to seal the victory. An interception returned 40 yards inside the NSU 5-yard line by junior cornerback Raheeme Dumas sent the Tigers into victory formation.
Now, the Tigers look forward to a trip to St. Charles, Mo., to face Lindenwood for the chance to welcome Pitt State to Hays as a 3-0 team. But for the time being, the Tigers can celebrate winning their first home opener since 2011 and winning two games to start the season for the first time since 2010.
“It gives you some momentum going into the next game. You learn from your mistakes. I don’t feel like we’ve played great these last two weeks but we found ways to win ballgames,” Brown said. “What would happened if we actually played a full game and actually played the way it’s supposed to be played? How good can this team be?
“Those are the things these kids gotta focus on. … Hopefully we can pull out another win going into Pitt State week, as well. It’s all confidence, kids believing themselves, fighting and battling and finding ways to win. They’ve done it the last two games in the fourth quarter and they’ve gotta continue to do that.”