MARYVILLE, Mo. — Almost a year to the day after notching the victory that took its football program to new heights, Fort Hays State returned to Maryville needing a win to stay at that level.
With their MIAA title and playoff hopes hanging in the balance, the Tigers came away with another program-defining win against a Division II powerhouse.
For the second straight year, the Tigers scraped out a one-point win over Northwest Missouri State, knocking off the No. 10-ranked Bearcats 17-16 on Saturday at Bearcat Stadium to move into a first-place tie with Northwest at 8-2.
The win puts the Tigers on the brink of back-to-back MIAA championships. They will earn at least a share of the MIAA title with a victory over winless Northeastern State next Saturday at home.
“I told the guys coming in, ‘This game is going to define who you are as a man and as a football team,’ ” Tiger coach Chris Brown said. “We came in here and battled and competed for four quarters. Our guys played hard, they played physical. They just believed in one another. They were focused and stayed focus throughout the whole game.”
Just like last year, it was a defensive slugfest between the Bearcats and Tigers, who started redshirt freshman quarterback Chance Fuller for the first time.
FHSU took a one-point lead with 9:08 left in the third quarter on Dante Brown’s 42-yard field goal, which proved to be the last points of the game.
Clinging to the lead with under three minutes left, the Tigers came up with a critical stop on third-and 1 when FHSU defensive lineman Sterling Swopes wrapped up running back Josh Caldwell for a loss of four at the Northwest 15, forcing a Bearcat punt.
“I was definitely expecting the run,” Swopes said. “… I just luckily got in there while the tackle was on me, just listened to my coach and ripped up and made the play.”
After the Bearcats used all their timeouts on Tiger running plays, Northwest helped FHSU run out the clock when a Bearcat was called for roughing the punter Brown for a penalty that give Fort Hays a free set downs with 1:20 left.
Another play that ended up looming large was FHSU's Malik Young blocking an extra-point attempt after the Bearcats took a 16-14 lead on a touchdown early in the third quarter.
“We made plays on both sides of the ball and so did Northwest," Brown said. "It just came down there to the end. We got lucky to get that roughing-the-kicker to seal the deal. Proud of our guys, the way they compete day in and out, focusing this week and getting locked in.”
Brown said Fuller’s mobility was the deciding factor in starting him over senior Jacob Mezera.
“I just knew that we had to extend plays in this game,” Brown said. “We knew they were going to bring a lot of pressure. I love Jacob Mezera to death, but his mobility in the pocket, I didn’t know if that would give us a chance to win or not. We had to go with Chance to give us a chance to move in the pocket, extend plays, seeing things down the field. Nothing bad with Jacob, but we just felt Chance had that mobility to make quick decisions and make things happen.”
Fuller finished 22 of 35 through the air for 240 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
“I was nervous, for sure, but I was really excited,” Fuller said. “It was just a great atmosphere, great team. It was fun.”
Fuller showed some toughness, shaking off several hard hits throughout the game.
“I got smacked a few times, but our O-line did what they could and I love them for it,” Fuller said.
The Tigers opened up a 14-0 first-quarter lead behind Fuller touchdown passes to Harley Hazlett and Layne Bieberle, but the Bearcats would account for the game’s next 16 points, taking a 16-14 lead on the first possession of the third quarter with a 19-yard touchdown pass to Alec Tatum after the Bearcats trailed by four at halftime.
After Brown’s field goal put the Tigers back in front, the teams traded defensive stops the rest of the way, including a key tackle by FHSU linebacker Jose Delgado on a fourth-and-1 in Tiger territory early in the fourth.
The Tigers outgained the Bearcats 252-178, holding Northwest without a first down until midway through the second quarter. Despite managing just 31 yards on 21 plays in the first half, Northwest still managed to get 10 points off a short field goal goal set up by an interception and a 56-yard punt return for a touchdown by Shawn Bane Jr.
Northwest quarterback Braden Wright was 14 of 26 through the air with a touchdown and one interception, getting picked off by FHSU’s Aquil Knowles in the first quarter.. The Bearcats managed just 61 yards on the ground while FHSU was held to 12 rushing yards on 36 carries.
“Our D-line played well all (game long),” Brown said. “They stuffed the run and got pressure on the quarterback in passing situations. It all comes down to the front line.”
Hazlett, who had a key touchdown in the 13-12 win at Northwest last year, again proved himself as FHSU’s go-to guy, catching 13 passes for 121 yards.
“Harley’s just a dude,” Brown said. “When we we need someone to go to and make things happen, Harley’s that guy. He’s going to catch balls with guys on him, he’s going to make guys miss downfield, he’s going to break tackles and make big gains as well.”
Delgado led the FHSU defense with 10 tackles while Swopes had seven.
The win was a huge boost to the Tigers’ playoff chances. Ranked No. 7 in the Super Region 3 rankings entering the week, a win next week against Northeastern State would undoubtedly clinch a playoff berth.
"We still got one more," Brown said. "We got to win this next one."