The Fort Hays State University Tigers spent the first 23 minutes of the second half looking for any spark, any answer to the 15th-ranked Pittsburg State Gorillas. Their Kansas counterpart had thwarted a 10-point lead the Tigers brought into the locker room. With less than seven minutes to play, the Gorillas appeared to be within one leg swing of taking a late lead.

Redshirt-freshman bandit Doyin Jibowu took a note from his elder, senior Daniel Lindsey, and gave the Tigers the jolt they desperately needed. Or so it seemed.

With 6:50 to play Saturday at Lewis Field Stadium, Pitt State kicker Chad Levin lined up for a 38-yard field goal in between the hashes.

Jibowu rushed around from the left side of the defense, around a blocker and leapt, giving a full extension. The ball, after leaving Levin’s foot, found the hands of Jibowu. The redshirt-freshman replicated Lindsey, who blocked a field goal late in the contest last season in Pittsburg to lead Fort Hays to a 7-6 win.

But a yellow piece of laundry left the pocket of a referee and glided down to the turf, erasing Jibowu’s blocked kick for a roughing-the-kicker ruling.

The Tigers’ hopes of getting the ball back tied with under seven minutes to play and a chance to right a dreadful second half disappeared. The Tigers thought they finally slowed down the Gorillas, but suddenly the uphill battle appeared as big as climbing Mount Everest.

The 10-yard personal foul call gave Pitt State a first down at the Tiger 11. Three plays later, John Roderique rushed six yards for a first down, a touchdown, and a redeeming 31-24 victory, handing Fort Hays State its first loss of the season.

The call did not come without controversy. Expletives erupted from the crowd of 6,043.

“I assume, and I think most people assume, that when you got a blocked kick, there is no roughing the kicker,” said Chris Brown, fifth-year head coach of the Tigers. “That’s what they called, so we’ll go back, look at the videotape and see, but that’s the call they made.”

Rule 9, Section I, “Roughing or Running Into Kicker Or Holder”, in the 2015 NCAA Football Rules and Interpretations, reads: “A player who makes contact with the kicker or holder after touching the kick is not charged with running into or roughing the kicker.” Jibowu was credited for the block and flagged for the penalty.

Long before the roughing the kicker penalty, the Tigers had the opportunity to extend a 24-14 halftime lead. Senior quarterback Treveon Albert emerged from the locker room having completed 11 of 12 passes for 126 yards and one touchdown. It was his legs that led the Tiger offense to the Pitt 28-yard line, picking up 43 yards on six rushes on the opening drive of the second half. On first down, Albert fired a pass toward senior receiver Andrew Flory into double coverage.

Pitt’s Darnell Walker snagged the ball on the 8-yard line, ending a lengthy Tiger drive. It was as close as the Tigers got to scoring in a second half that will leave thoughts of “what if” for those in the locker room and in the stands.

“I feel like as a team, we just got a little bit complacent,” Albert said. “A lot of complacency because we lost the game. We preach it every year, and we didn’t finish. We were feeling good the second half, we just didn’t finish.”

The next offensive drive of the third quarter ended in a punt after just three plays, and the Gorillas made the Tigers pay for their first three and out of the game. A Chad Levin field goal cut the deficit to seven points.

The next Tiger drive resulted in negative-one yard of offense and another punt. Roderique led the Gorillas on a 10-play, 62-yard drive that tied the game thanks to his 6-yard rushing touchdown and a converted fake punt on fourth and 12 earlier in the drive. The Tigers again punted after three plays, leading to Pitt’s game-winning drive that was extended thanks to the roughing the kicker call.

“We just kind of let off the pedal,” junior safety DeAndre James said. “We have a chance to score and put the game away. We just couldn’t capitalize. The times when the defense was supposed to make some stops, we couldn’t capitalize, we couldn’t get the stops. We kinda just let it slip away.”

The Tigers’ offense recorded just 77 yards in the second half and was unable to keep their defense fresh. The Tigers were outscored 17-0 in the half and allowed 224 yards as the defense was on the field for more than 19 of the final 30 minutes, including 11 minutes and 13 seconds in the fourth quarter.

“I just think we let off the cylinders a little bit, didn’t play as physical as we did the first half and that’s a big reason why we lost this football game,” Brown said. “You gotta play physical for four quarters and be aggressive for four quarters.

“Us not playing the third or fourth quarter is what cost us that game. We should have scored a few more touchdowns. We do that, we win that ballgame.”

It was a tale of two halves, as the offense got off to its best start of the season Saturday. The Gorillas scored on the game’s opening drive on a 12-yard pass from Roderique to Jeff Seybold, Jr. The Tigers forced a three and out after Pitt State converted an onside kick, giving Albert his first chance to get into the action.

The senior quarterback went 6 of 6 on the drive and capped it off with a 16-yard pass to senior tight end Zack Gaughan, who found a wide-open seam down the middle and walked into the end zone untouched to tie the game in the first quarter.

The next Tiger drive showcased the Tigers’ MIAA-leading rushing attack, as Albert racked up 60 yards on three rushes. Albert ended the drive with a 31-yard rush to pay dirt to give the Tigers the 14-7 lead with 4:56 to play in the first quarter. Albert finished the first half 9-of-9 passing for 108 yards and one touchdown.

The Gorillas tied the game at 14 apiece before the end of the quarter on a 48-yard rush by DeAndre Murray.

After a 27-yard field goal by senior Drew O’Brien gave the Tigers a three-point lead, an attempt by Levin to tie the game was thwarted when Lindsey gave Pitt a taste of 2014 with a blocked field goal. Sophomore running back Shaquille Cooper rewarded the Tigers with a 55-yard rush to the end zone to take the 24-14 lead.

Both teams traded possessions after redshirt-freshman defensive end Wyatt Parker picked off a Roderique pass and Cooper fumbled the ensuing play. With two seconds to play in the half, the Gorillas drove down to the Tiger 2-yard line and spiked the ball. The officials ruled there was not enough time to allocate for two plays and signaled for halftime.

“We played great the first half, did the things we needed to,” Brown said. “The second half, we didn’t do those things. We gotta improve on that. It’s something we’ve always talked about, you’ve gotta finish. We didn’t finish that game.”

Though Albert put together 107 rushing yards and finished 14 of 21 for 141 passing yards, Cooper could only add 13 yards in the second half toward his total of 104 on the ground.

Roderique bested his opposition, throwing for 225 yards on 21-of-32 passing with one touchdown while adding 117 yards and two scores on the ground.

In addition to his blocked field goal, Lindsey recorded 12 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, while junior Alex Schmidtberger led all players with 14 tackles.

There is no time for the Tigers to dwell on being blocked of their first 4-0 start since joining the Division II ranks, though. Fort Hays welcomes 3-1 Washburn, who knocked off the Gorillas in Pittsburg in Week 3, to Hays on Saturday. The loss will sting for the remainder of the weekend, but the Tigers know that one loss doesn’t end their hopes of clinching the program’s first postseason berth since 1995, even if it does make it that much tougher.

“We can’t allow ourselves to dwell on this at all,” senior offensive lineman Matt Erbert said. “If we do that than one loss can snowball into more. We’ll watch the film on Monday, we’ll learn from it, then we’ll put it behind us.”