Chris Brown has worked tirelessly through the summer and through preseason to prepare his Fort Hays State University Tigers to complete his team goal. Brown’s team seemingly struggled to finish games and put together complete fourth quarters and has made it a focal point in practice to this point.
From the defense’s conditioning to being fundamentally sound with the ball in possession, the Tigers were prepared to pull off come-from-behind wins in the fourth quarter in each of their first two games. Now, it’s about playing 60 complete minutes of Tiger-branded football.
“We’re finishing the fourth but we’re not playing the first, second or third,” Brown, the fifth-year head coach of the Tigers, said after Thursday’s 27-13 win against Northeastern State. “That’s our problem right now. We’ve gotta find a way to start fast and finish faster. That’s our whole motto all year with our kids is we need to start the game strong but end the game at our strongest. We’re not starting off very strong right now.”
The Tigers captured their first 2-0 start under Brown, but not without some late-game drama. The Tigers have scored just three points in the first quarter thus far. In the second quarter, the Tigers have managed 17 points, though all have come with less than four minutes until halftime.
On top of slow offensive starts, the Tigers have founded themselves facing deficits — 20 points in Week 1 and 10 points in Week 2 — before halftime. The Tigers have been outscored 20-3 in the opening quarter.
As an anchor of an offensive line that has been solid thus far, senior right tackle Matt Erbert is aware of the early offensive struggles but sees positives from the early season performances. While the Tigers’ offense has struggled to get going early, it still manages to put up points.
The Tigers scored 10 points or less three times last year, losing two of three such games.
“We definitely need to start games a lot faster,” Erbert said. “But once we get into a rhythm it’s looked pretty good at times. One thing I kinda thought about (is) this year we had a couple games where we played a little rocky but were able to put up 30 and 27 points respectively, whereas last year when we were playing rocky we were lucky to get seven or 14.
“If we can put together four consistent quarters of running the ball and hitting our play-action and setting things up for our defense not having to be on the field, I think we’ll really be able to blossom.”
The second half has been another story in 2015. Fort Hays has allowed just nine points after the break while scoring 37 points of their own. The Tigers also have secured the ball following halftime, giving away just one turnover compared to three in the first half. The defense has responded with four second-half turnovers as well.
The Tigers’ defensive unit, while taking a quarter to get settled in, has been a big part of the 2-0 start. In order to move to 3-0, junior Alex Schmidtberger said the concept for playing a full 60 minutes of defense is rather simple.
“We’re working on just doing your thing, doing your assignment and letting the guy next to you do his assignment,” Schmidtberger said. “The big thing is getting off the field on third down. We’ve been struggling with that this year, we struggled with it last year. … I don’t know what it is. I really don’t.”
Running has been the bread and butter for Fort Hays, ranking sixth in Division II with 333 yards per game. But with establishing an early offensive presence comes the need to build on the passing game, led by senior Treveon Albert, who has completed just 17 of 37 passes for a league-low 200 yards.
“I think they’re still just trying to figure things out and figure out the tempo,” Brown said. “By now we should do it, get our run game going like we have been. Our main thing is we gotta start completing some passes. … Hopefully this week it gets cleaned up and we’re able to hit a few quick passes and get Treveon feeling calm and comfortable in the pocket.
“In practice he’s on the money, he sees what he’s supposed to see and feels comfortable. I just think he needs to go out there and treat it like it’s a practice, focus in, lock in, get your reads.”
With the program’s first 3-0 start since 2010 in reach, it has been a week of the Tigers trusting their coaches to show Brown and Lindenwood they can play a full game with anybody in the conference.
“I think there’s a lot to build off of,” Erbert said. “There’s a lot of things we’ve done well but there’s a lot of things we’ve done poorly. Our coaches are getting us coached up and we’re building off things we did well. We’re learning from our mistakes so hopefully Week 3 it will all culminate into one good, consistent game.”