After stumbling on the road to Missouri Western and Emporia State, Fort Hays State has recovered to put itself in a position to fight for a second straight MIAA championship.
And now the Tigers can look back to last year for inspiration and confidence.
FHSU will return to Maryville, Mo., for the first time since the Tigers knocked off Northwest Missouri State last year on the way to an undefeated regular season and MIAA title. Fort Hays will look for a similar outing when it faces the No. 10 Bearcats at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Bearcat Stadium.
"I think it does (give the team confidence), getting that monkey off your back," FHSU coach Chris Brown said of last year's win in Maryville. "Fort Hays hadn't done that in a long; first time since I've been here. It just kind of gives you confidence that they are beatable. They are a good football team, (but) they've been beat this year already. We know that we can do it.
"If we put everything together offensively, defensively and on special teams, we got a great chance to win this ballgame."
A win would move the Tigers (7-2) into a tie for first place in the conference while a loss would eliminate their title hopes. Northwest (8-1) can clinch at least a share of the title by beating the Tigers.
FHSU, ranked No. 7 in the Super Region 3 rankings, would also significantly boost its playoff chances with a win.
"We have a lot of young guys, so the older guys have to get the young guys ready for the environment and the hostile crowd," FHSU junior receiver Harley Hazlett said. "It's an electric crowd. It's going to be packed. (Northwest) is very disciplined. They're not going to do things to beat themselves. We've got to come in with the mentality that we're going to beat them and play well to beat them."
Fort Hays notched a 13-12 win over the Bearcats last year to clinch the MIAA championship.
"There's always confidence when you go in there last year and beat them, but that was last year's team, this is this year's team," FHSU senior defensive back Doyin Jibowu said. "I'm confident in this year's team. I'm confident that we have what it takes to go in there and get the job done."
Northwest ranks first in the MIAA in scoring defense, allowing just 12 points and 277 yards per game. FHSU is giving up 19 points and 346 yards per game.
Brown expects another defensive struggle with the Bearcats, whose only loss was a 31-21 setback at Central Oklahoma in Week 4.
"They got a great defense. I think we've got a great defense as well," Brown said. "Their offense is pretty good and I think when we're clicking on offense we're pretty good as well. Seeing what they do numbers-wise defensively, teams have struggled to put points on the board. Our defense has done a good job of doing the same thing. It's two teams putting a lot of pressure on the offense to get things done. Somebody's offense has got to take over and win this ball game."
Northwest redshirt freshman quarterback Braden Wright has produced a strong first season for the Bearcats, throwing for 1,890 yards with 16 touchdowns while rushing for 469 yards and 11 TDs.
"He's a strong runner. He's elusive, he makes people miss," Brown said of Wright. "He's got a very good arm and he's good at downfield throws as well. Does a good job of extending plays. He's gotten better each week. We've got to find a way to keep him contained in the pocket and find a way to eliminate the quarterback run."
Shawn Bane is Wright's top target, entering with 589 yards on 32 catches.
Saturday's game is part of the NCAA Football Showcase. It will be available for viewing on multiple platforms this week, as well as local TV channels.