ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Over the past year, Fort Hays State developed into a team accustomed to winning every time it took the field in the MIAA.
Fort Hays was finally forced to get reacquainted with the feeling of losing on Thursday at Missouri Western, and that might be a wake-up call the Tigers needed, according to FHSU coach Chris Brown.
Dropped passes, turnovers and issues on special teams contributed to the Tigers’ first regular-season loss since early November of 2016, with the defending MIAA champions suffering a 23-13 setback in the Griffons’ home opener at Spratt Stadium.
“I think this team needed to get a loss to show that they aren’t the dominant team that they think they are,” Brown said. “They are beatable. This is going to be good for them. They got to come back to work, they got to focus in and lock in a little bit harder than what they have.”
After relying on a dramatic rally to escape against Central Missouri in the season opener a week earlier, the Tigers didn’t find that magic against the Griffons, who picked up their first win over a ranked opponent in five years.
Western broke a 10-10 tie early in the fourth quarter on a 6-yard run from Derek Gray and later turned a bad punt into a 27-yard touchdown return for a touchdown to put the Tigers on the ropes.
But much of FHSU's woes came in the first three quarters, including three interceptions, two of which bounced off the hands of FHSU receivers.
“Missed opportunities, assignment busts, overthrown balls, underthrown balls, balls not being caught — it came down to everything in this game,” Brown said. “Our guys kind of competed, but we didn’t finish. We didn’t compete all the way through that game. We let down. Our guys didn’t know how to respond.
“One of the things we’re preaching is that we need to be the most physical, most aggressive team on the field, and we’re not that right now. We’re just a bunch of guys that are sitting back and letting people bring it to us and not getting after it. We’ve got to figure something out this next week.”
Tight end Matt Wendelberger, who caught seven passes for 103 yards and had FHSU’s touchdown, echoed Brown sentiments about trying to use the loss as a motivational tool.
“I think as a team we needed to be humbled,” he said. “It comes down to we weren’t as good as we thought we were. I think it’s going to be bring us back down and give us motivation.”
The Griffons made FHSU one dimensional, with quarterback Jacob Mezera going 34 of 62 for 338 yards through the air with the three picks and a 20-yard touchdown to Wendelberger.
Fort Hays mustered just 32 yards on the ground on 17 carries.
“I think we were going to try and spread out the ball more and get the ground attack going, but we just couldn’t get it going,” Wendelberger said.
The Griffons (1-1) struck first after a 58-yard punt return by Brandin Danridge set up a 13-yard touchdown run by Western quarterback Dom Marino with 9:15 left in the first quarter. FHSU later knotted it up with Wendelberger’s touchdown but had two promising drives wiped out by interceptions in the first half.
The Tigers were threatening to take the halftime lead after driving down to the Western 6, but a pass bounced off Wendelberger into the hands of Dandridge with six seconds left in the half.
The Griffons and Tigers traded third-quarter field goals, including a career-high 49-yarder from Dante Brown. Gray’s go-ahead touchdown for Missouri Western was set up a 33-yard run from Marino.
FHSU answered with a drive inside the Griffons’ 10 but Wendelberger dropped a pass near the goal line and Fort Hays settled for a Brown 26-yard field goal to cut it to 17-13 with 12:05 left.
Missouri Western later pushed the lead to two scores after a line-drive rugby style punt from Dante Brown landed square in the chest of Western’s James Husky three yards from the line of scrimmage and was returned 27 yards for a touchdown to put the Griffons up 23-13 (PAT was blocked) with 8:58 left.
“We’ve got to get the ball off the ground,” Chris Brown said. “It was low, right into the guy’s chest. Easy catch for him. Our guys are covering downfield and it’s an easy touchdown. That’s another mistake that we can’t have.”
A 36-yard pass play to Wendelberger then set up the Tigers in Griffons’ territory but the 10-point lead was protected by a missed 44-yard field goal from Dante Brown.
The Tigers outgained Western 370-302, with Western doing most of its damage with a 224-yard ground attack, led by 74 yards rushing by Marino.
Harley Hazlett had a game-high 12 receptions for 86 yards for FHSU.
Linebacker Jose Delgado led Fort Hays with 14 tackles while defensive lineman Wyatt Parker had nine stops. Parker also had a forced fumble and a recovery.
The Tigers played without injured starting offensive linemen Nathan Hale and Pat Kelly, and speedy redshirt freshman receiver Jmari Davis left with an apparent knee injury he suffered on the opening kickoff.
Up next, FHSU will play host to Washburn on Sept. 15 at Lewis Field Stadium.
“At the end of the day, we just have to take it and learn from it,” Parker said. “Make sure it never happens again.”