When the Fort Hays State University Tigers take the field against the Lindenwood Lions at 7 Saturday night, they are doing so with more than another chance to add another win to their résume.
The turnaround fifth-year head coach Chris Brown established at Fort Hays is well documented, but it has never been run as consistently. Dating back to the 2014 season, the Tigers are in pursuit of a sixth consecutive win for the first time in two decades. Having received votes in the AFCA poll for two weeks, the Tigers also are inching toward their first appearance in the national polls since the organization’s inception in 2000.
But the seven-hour trip east on I-70 remains as just another business trip for junior captain Alex Schmidtberger and the 2-0 Tigers.
“I think we all know we’re on a roll but we don’t really talk about it,” Schmidtberger. “We go into each week thinking were 0-0, this is the start of a new season basically. We just gotta come out, execute our assignments and play every play like it’s our last.”
FHSU’s history with Lindenwood is brief with the Tigers holding a 2-1 advantage since the inaugural meeting in 2012. The Tigers have won the past two games by an average of 13.5 points, including a 20-7 home win last season.
The Lions have won just six games in the past two-plus seasons. Success has been very apparent in the 12 years under Patrick Ross, compiling an 88-42 record. With success came their high-flying offense, averaging nearly 35 points per game in his tenure.
The Lions’ offense, though it has been dialed back with the program’s success not where it once was, is a unique version of the spread many teams in the MIAA run. With an athletic quarterback and tall, speedy receivers, the Lions start with one in the backfield and four receivers, occasionally all lining up on one side of the field. Their offensive line features wider gaps between players than average, with splits anywhere from 2 to 3 yards between linemen.
For junior Nathan Shepherd and a defensive line that recorded five sacks last week against Northeastern State, they see it as an opportunity to live in the backfield with Scorggins holding onto the ball longer than FHSU’s first two opponents.
“This quarterback’s definitely gonna test our secondary vertically with a lot of vertical routes and whatnot but that’s gonna give our defensive line a good chance to do stuff,” Shepherd said. “Our defensive line didn’t exactly have a lot of plays where we could set up our pass rush moves, whereas this team, there’s gonna be a lot deeper routes. He’s gonna hold the ball a bit longer and they have a lot larger splits. This is sorta like a welcome home present. It’s like, ‘You’ve been going hard all year, all off-season, make the most of it with this game right now and really show your coaches and your team what we can do.’”
Even with one of the most potent and creative offenses, Ross said the players, not the playbooks, are the deciding factor in the MIAA.
“When you’re not having as much success, you dwindle the playbook down a little bit and offensively, we haven’t had the success in the past couple years,” Ross said. “At the end of the day, the key thing is the guys making play on the field. We all can coach, there’s no question. … Very rarely is it going to be the coach out-coaching the guy on the other side of the field.”
With a style different than the Tigers have faced so far this season, the Lindenwood offense will require the defensive line, which showed drastic improvement in Week 2, to win their individual battles to open up space for the Tiger linebackers to make plays.
“We’re gonna have to win the one-on-one blocks and it’s the spacing; it’s a little bit different spacing, giving room for those backs to hit, makes the pass rush a little bit tougher for our defensive lineman as well,” he said. “Just the pass game; a lot of quick passes, a lot of vertical routes as well, and a lot of play action stuff that’s gonna give us some trouble. If we just stay locked in to what we’re doing, read our keys and do our assignments, we should be fine.”
Jesse Scroggins, a senior transfer from Arizona who started his career at Southern California, is 34-of-70 passing for 421 yards and two touchdowns to one interception, with an additional 50 yards and touchdown coming on the ground.
The Lions look to get deep routes and quick passes to their experienced receiving corps. While the passing game has not been as productive as recent seasons, Schmidtberger knows Scroggins will put pressure on the Tigers’ defense.
“I think the biggest challenge is definitely gonna be on the secondary because their receivers, they are very talented, they are very fast, very explosive players,” Schmidtberger said. “They’re gonna test our secondary vertically and that’s gonna be the big issue that we have to defeat, their vertical routes. As far as linebackers, we gotta make sure we get hands on their receivers, we slow up or disrupt their routes so the secondary can work over the top.”
Junior Connor Harris, an All-America and All-MIAA selection last season, anchors the Lions’ defense as one of the best linebackers in the country. Harris ranks third in the country with 16 tackles per game, including the most solo tackles. The Lions gave up 56 points in a road contest with Pitt State last week and are giving up 184 rushing yards per game.
The Tigers have ran their way to the sixth-best rushing offense in the country at 333 yards per game on the backs of sophomore Shaquille Cooper and seniors Treveon Albert and Derek Campbell. But after a slow start to the passing game with just 37 passing yards from Albert last week, Brown has made it a point to get the offense running on all cylinders in Week 3.
“We’re gonna try to establish the run game like we always do and then hopefully use some play action and try to spread the field a little bit, keep them on their heels,” Brown said. “If we can do those things, I think we’ll have a successful day offensively … from that we’ve gotta build on our pass game to at least open up that run game a little bit more. If we can’t, they’re just gonna stack the box and we’re gonna struggle all day long.
“Our pass game’s gotta get started somehow and we’ve gotta find a way to do it this week. We’ve gotta get it done this week.”
The Tigers have had the more recent success, but with three starters down for the season in Justin McPhail, Rashad Dunnigan and Malik Thomas, there are obstacles. After a long road trip, Brown said the team has a busy day planned to keep the players from getting distracted.
“Once you get there in St. Charles, you gotta be locked in,” Schmidtberger said. “When you show up at the hotel you’re focused from there on out and get to bed at a decent time. You wake up in the morning and you’re mind is on nothing but the game.”
The team is well aware the No. 4 Pitt State Gorillas are just one week away from making a visit to Hays, but losing focus on the week at hand and not welcoming the team they upset last year with a perfect record would truly hurt, senior offensive lineman Matt Erbert said.
“I mean, we’re definitely not looking ahead, but we understand that that’s the big matchup coming up here,” Erbert said. “But if we don’t take care of business against Lindenwood then that game loses a lot of its meaning. We’re definitely focused on this week. It’s a long ride up there. To not come back with a win would just be really disappointing.”
With the focus on recreating the history book, getting the passing game going and overcoming the early-game woes, the Tigers’ approach to Saturday’s kickoff is to win every game like it’s the start of a new season.
“We’re looking to get win number three and that’s our goal and our guys are pretty fired up about it,” Brown said. “It’s been a long time since Fort Hays State’s been 3-0, so that’s our goal for this week. We’re 0-0, looking to be 1-0 again. If we can do that, we’ll be 3-0.”