Watching Fort Hays State roll past Northeastern State on Saturday, it seemed hard to fathom that the Tigers were on the verge of seeing their conference title and playoff hopes dashed just a few weeks ago.
On this day, however, securing a second straight MIAA tittle and playoff berth was never in doubt.
Fort Hays jumped all over the winless RiverHawks early en route to a 58-0 victory on Saturday, earning a share of the conference championship along with Northwest Missouri State at 9-2.
Unlike last year’s undefeated MIAA title run, it was a much tougher road for the Tigers, who battled injuries throughout the year and suffered a pair of road losses to Missouri Western and Emporia State.
“I feel this one was a lot harder, just because of all the adversity we’ve been through this year — injuries and losing games we shouldn’t have really lost,” FHSU senior quarterback Jacob Mezera said. “It’s just been crazy. I can’t even explain it. There’s just been so much adversity this year and I’m really proud of everybody just sticking together and believing in what we’re doing.
“Here we are, and it’s so much sweeter than last year’s, I think, honestly.”
Fort Hays coach Chris Brown famously told the Tigers that they were just playing for pride following a 28-24 loss to Emporia State that knocked FHSU to 4-2 on the season.
“Last year, being undefeated through the conference, that’s a big feat and that’s awesome and that’s really, really hard to do,” Brown said. “But these kids made me eat my words at Emporia when I said you’re just playing for pride now.
“They had something more to say about that. Just the adversity that they fought through all season long with injuries across the board, guys not playing fully healthy, and just getting the job done. That says a lot about these kids the way they want to battle, compete and not give up.”
Mezera agreed that Brown’s speech after the ESU game helped fuel the Tigers.
“After the (ESU loss) I think everybody looked in the mirror and got kind of (ticked) off about it and wanted to prove him wrong, and we obviously did that,” Mezera said. “I thought it was a great motivating factor for him to say that, and all of us wanted to show him up and prove him wrong in the end.”
FHSU wiped out any thought of a RiverHawk upset early, scoring on its four possessions to open up a 28-0 lead by the end of the third quarter. Mezera drew the start and threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Layne Bieberle on the the Tigers’ first drive and then found Dandre Reed on a shovel pass for an 11-yard score.
Wide receiver Harley Hazlett took a handoff and hit an open Bieberle downfield for a 42-yard TD with 8:33 left in the first, and D.J. Hickman scored on a 1-yard plunge with 3:31 left in the frame. Dante Brown tacked on two short field goals to help stretch the lead to 34-0 at halftime.
“Us getting started early, I think it kind of deflated them a little bit, kind of got them thinking about how this game was going to go,” Brown said. “It’s always huge to get a fast start.”
In the second half, the Tigers got a 2-yard touchdown from Hickman, a 36-yard TD run from Charles Tigner, a 29-yard field goal from Brown and a 4-yard TD to Manny Ramsey from Mezera.
Mezera took the bulk of the snaps after redshirt freshman Chance Fuller drew the start last week in FHSU’s 17-16 win at Northwest Missouri. Mezera went 19 of 31 through the air for 211 yards with three touchdowns and one interception in what was likely his last game at Lewis Field.
“He deserves it. The kid’s worked hard,” Brown said. “He’s won a lot of ball games here at Fort Hays. He’s been a big reason of why we've won so many ballgames, just with the things he’s done. I’m proud of the way he handled the situation last week and him stepping in today and doing a great job.”
Fuller went 7 of 7 through the air for 73 yards. Hazlett had nine catches for 93 yards while Bieberle made six grabs for 95 yards with two TDs. Hickman ran for 80 yards on 13 carries with two scores while Tigner had 74 yards on seven carries with a TD.
It was the second shutout of the year for the Tigers, who also blanked Central Oklahoma 15-0 in Week 5. Northeastern State’s Brady Ellsworth briefly put the RiverHawks on the board with a 37-yard field goal in the third quarter, but it was wiped out by a holding penalty and Ellsworth proceeded to miss a 47-yard try.
FHSU held NSU to just 190 yards of offense.
“Just shut them down right from the get-go so maybe we can get the young guys out there,” FHSU senior linebacker Jose Delgado said of the game plan. “We had to control the line scrimmage, and I felt the D-line did a really good job of that.”
The Tigers, who entered the week No. 5 in the NCAA Division II Super Region 3 rankings, will await Sunday’s 4 p.m. playoff selection show. They could be destined for Indianapolis, with No. 4-seeded University of Indianapolis earning a 34-24 win over Hillsdale on Saturday.