The Fort Hays State Tigers welcome the Washburn Ichabods to Lewis Field Stadium on Saturday with a feeling that has not been present for nearly a calendar year.
Until the Pittsburg State Gorillas erased a Tiger 14-point lead at halftime to deny Fort Hays a 4-0 start, they had not known the feeling of losing since the aftermath of a loss to Northwest Missouri State last October.
While the Tigers are in the midst of a difficult five-game stretch against teams expected to finish at the top of the MIAA, head coach Chris Brown does not want his players to forget how they felt in the waning moments of last Saturday’s defeat.
“You still gotta keep it in their minds because it does not feel very good,” Brown said. “It just leaves a bad taste in your mouth and that taste usually stays there until you win another ballgame. We gotta work extra hard this week and focus in all the way through practice.”
Brown was a second-half collapse away from his second consecutive win against his alma mater.
The Tigers were outscored 17-0 after the break and were forced into three and outs time and time again, despite a surgical first half from senior Treveon Albert through the air and on the ground.
Albert methodically carved up the Gorilla defense to complete 11 of 12 passes for 126 yards and one touchdown in the first half. The surefire hands of emerging sophomore receiver Tyler Bacon helped Albert get in a much-needed rhythm early, heading to the locker room with four catches for 40 yards. Bacon said it was a fairly simple matter that led to their early success.
“Coaches just told us we were gonna need to step up. Last week in practice we really encouraged each other and knew it was time to go,” Bacon said. “We got with Treveon and we just said, ‘We can do this Treveon, we got it.’ That’s what we did. We just focused in and made it happen.”
The Tigers completed just three more passes for 15 yards in a woeful half where they totaled just 77 yards of offense. The kind of precision displayed in the first half will be a key to dissecting a talented Washburn defense that has broken up 24 pass attempts and seen four different players intercept the opposing quarterback.
While trying to get more receivers in the mix, such as Bacon, tight end Zack Gaughan and receiver Andrew Flory — the senior transfer caught seven passes in Week 1 and has seen extra coverage since then — an early rhythm in the passing game will go a long way in spreading out the defense for their playmakers.
“I think we need to get to Flory but I think a lot of people are keying in on Flory,” Brown said. “They’re playing a high-half look where the corner’s jamming in but the safety’s really keying in to see where he’s at, doubling him up a little bit, having a cornerback or safety sitting down to take him away, too. We gotta find other guys to go to as well. Once we start hitting other targets and start loosening up that defense, Flory’s gonna have his chances again.”
The Ichabods enter Hays with a 3-1 record under 14th-year head coach Craig Schurig, including a three-game winning streak that saw them knock off then-No. 4 Pitt State in Pittsburg. Brown spent 2002-10 as a defensive coordinator under Schurig and is 0-4 against his mentor.
The Tigers have beat the Ichabods, who were 4-7 last season, just once since 2003 and dropped a three-point game in overtime last year, a loss that has stuck with the Tigers ever since.
“We definitely remember it,” Bacon said. “It sticks in your mind and it was pretty bitter. That’s definitely a motivation coming into this game.”
Much like last year’s contest when they jumped out to a 14-7 lead in the first quarter, the Tigers have led at halftime of each of their past two games. Brown said his team needs to learn how to play with a lead and finish a team that is trailing on the scoreboard.
“Our kids just gotta learn how to keep finishing and do the things we need to do when we’ve got a team down,” Brown said. “We gotta learn how to drive the spike and try to finish them off and that’s something we didn’t do.”
The Ichabods return a more experienced team with the addition of quarterback Derek McGinnis, a North Dakota State transfer, and running back Brandon Bourbon, who started his career at Kansas and is the fourth-leading rusher in the MIAA at 97 yards per game. McGinnis posts an 11-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio with 263 yards through the air per game.
Knowing the threat in both areas of the Ichabod offense, redshirt freshman Doyin Jibowu said the Tigers’ defense must be keen on stopping the run first and foremost.
“We’re gonna have to stop the run. If we can’t stop the run, they’re obviously gonna have the play action off of it,” Jibowu said. “I think if we do a good job stopping the run then we’re gonna have a good day and be successful. If we stop the run, we put them in third-and-long situations and they have to pass and I feel like we can do a good enough job of stopping that, too.”
Standing at 3-1, the Tigers know they are not out of the playoff or conference championship hunt. Two losses, however, would make a run to national championship much more difficult. With the goal of making their first postseason appearance in 20 years, Brown said the team is already in playoff mode.
“They understand what we still have to play for. There’s a lot to play for. It’s kind of more of a playoff mode now like everybody’s in with some losses. We’re gonna try to win every game that we possibly can and it’s still a long season, still a long ways to go.
“Winning’s important to them. They hate to lose now.”