A month ago, Fort Hays State's hopes for a second straight MIAA title and playoff appearance were seemingly on life support.
Following a 28-24 loss at Emporia State that knocked the Tigers to 4-2, the message in the locker room changed.
"I told them they were just playing for pride now because I thought that's what was going to happen," FHSU coach Chris Brown said. "I thought the season was over and all we could maybe do was get to a bowl game. We might end up 9-2 and not make the playoffs, just the way things were looking for us."
Four games later, the Tigers are on the cusp of achieving all their goals after a midseason turnaround catapulted them back to the top of the MIAA.
Following a 17-16 road victory over then No. 10-ranked Northwest Missouri State last Saturday, the 8-2 and No. 22-ranked Tigers can secure a playoff berth and at least a share of the MIAA title with a win over 0-10 Northeastern State in the regular-season finale at 2 p.m. Saturday in Lewis Field Stadium.
"They've made me eat my words," Brown said. "If they come back this Saturday and win this game, they're going to be conference champs and get to the playoffs."
Since their backs were put to the walls with the ESU loss, the Tigers have reeled off four straight wins to climb into a tie for first place in the conference with Northwest Missouri. The run started with a 50-21 win over Pittsburg State the next week, followed by a 29-26 win in two overtimes at Nebraska-Kearney. The Tigers then notched a 27-14 win over Lindenwood before pulling out a thriller at Northwest for the second straight year behind a dominant defensive outing.
"I really think this team has matured as the season's gone on," Brown said. "I thought early in the year were weren't a real mature team, just didn't do things the right way. But as the season's gone on they've started doing the things we've asked them to do with their film study and preparations and fighting through adversity, making the plays they needed to make. The guys are really stepping up and doing the things that weren't out of them all year long. We're finally getting it.
"They're resilient. They love one another. They fight hard for one another. They've really figured it out here down this last stretch because our backs have been against the wall here for a long time."
FHSU defensive line Sterling Swopes said the ESU loss was a wake-up call.
"It's always the little things we got to fix," he said. "After that game, we just had to take it one game at a time. ... We just had to keep going and that's what we did. We just took it one week at a time and we just kept grinding."
"We had them take a good look at themselves and the way they were doing things," Brown said. "We saw that they were watching more film, doing the things that we asked them to do, practicing harder, just doing all the little things right."
The Tigers could win the MIAA title outright with a win over NSU and a Northwest Missouri loss on the road at Central Missouri on Saturday.
FHSU enters the week ranked No. 5 in the Super Region 3 rankings and could still host a home playoff game if the Tigers could climb up a spot.
"I'm proud of them because they've fought so hard to get to this point," Brown said. "It's right in our grasp. We just got to take care of business on Saturday."