Harley Hazlett caught three touchdowns, Chance Fuller threw four TDs and Fort Hays State's defense never let Missouri Southern gain any traction as the Tigers rolled to a 44-3 victory on Saturday night at Lewis Field Stadium.
Missouri Southern went to the air 64 times, but the Tigers' young secondary rose to the occasion, picking off Lions starting quarterback Jacob Park four times. Hays High product Hayden Kreutzer had two interceptions and Isaiah Creal-Mugray and Tanner Hoekman each had a pick.
"Defensively, that's what you strive for — get turnovers and put your offense in good position," said Kreutzer, a senior defensive back. "We forced turnovers, and that not only sets up your offense, it frustrates the other team. It makes the quarterback second-guess his next throws and makes everything flow better when you can get turnovers."
FHSU (2-2) overcame a sloppy start on offense to punch in two second-quarter touchdowns and take a 20-0 halftime lead. The Tigers then broke it open with three touchdowns in the third quarter.
"I thought the second half they did a great job of finishing the ball game," said FHSU coach Chris Brown, who picked up his 60th win at Fort Hays. "Still not quite where we want them yet, but I thought they played more physical on both sides of the ball. They did the things we asked them to do after halftime, and they executed.
"And they had some fun tonight — that's the main thing we try to tell these kids. You've got to love the game of football and you've got to have some fun with it and we did in the second half. Hopefully we can build off of this. I'm still going to have some mistakes we have to correct and get better at, but overall, the performance, I thought, was pretty good."
Light rain made for slippery conditions that contributed to a combined six turnovers — three for each team — in the first half.
With the Tigers protecting a 6-0 lead early in the second quarter, turnovers occurred on three consecutive plays. Fuller’s deep pass was picked off by Southern’s John Elizu, but then a deflected pass from Park was intercepted by Creal-Musgray. The Tigers had the ball at the Southern 6 after the pick but gave the ball right back when quarterback Voshon Waiters came in to run the ball and fumbled into the end zone.
However, Fort Hays broke through for a pair of touchdowns before halftime. Fuller hit a wide-open Manny Ramsey for a 17-yard TD and Harley Hazlett took a screen pass and raced down the sideline for a 51-yard TD with 4:16 left before halftime.
"Coming out of halftime, (the mindset) was do not let up," Kreutzer said. "We've (had leads) in the fourth quarter before and we've had people come back. We knew this was a team we could bury coming out in the second half. That was the mindset, offensively and defensively, and we came out and executed."
Any hopes of a Lions comeback were dashed early in the third quarter. FHSU's Te’Corey Tutson took the second-half opening kickoff 93 yards to set up a 3-yard TD to Hazlett on a shovel pass.
"That was a huge play for us," Brown said of Tutson's return. "Should've got to end zone. He's fast, he's quick. Probably made a few too many cuts instead of getting vertical. But it was good to see him do that. Maybe that gives him some confidence. He's explosive. He's got some good vision and he can make some things happen for us."
Hazlett later hauled in a 22-yarder from Fuller for his third touchdown.
Fuller, who returned to action after being placed in concussion protocol during last week’s overtime win at Washburn, went 20 of 36 through the air for 255 yards with the four touchdowns. He was pulled midway through the third quarter once the Tigers broke it open.
Park was replaced by Sean Kelly after throwing his fourth pick early in the third quarter. But Kelly was later carted off after suffering what appeared to be a serious lower-leg injury late in the third quarter. Park returned after Kelly's injury, finishing 22 of 48 for 173 yards with four picks.
The Lions finally got on the board late in the third quarter with a 30-yard field goal from Riley Hathorn.
Hazlett made eight receptions for 123 yards, notching the first three-touchdown game of his FHSU career.
"We need him, week in and week out, to make plays for us," Brown said. "He stepped up tonight. He was playing against his old coach (Jeff Sims) at Garden City; he was there one year (at Garden) and then came to us.
"He's starting to become the dog we want him to be. He's playing hard, he's playing physical, he's playing aggressive. He's doing exactly what we need to get done."
The Tigers amassed 437 yards of offense while Southern finished with 344. The Lions dropped to 1-3 in their first season under Sims.
“We were just off," Sims said. "Offense is a rhythm thing and we were just off. We’ve struggled starting all year. Our defense did a good job of battling early when our offense struggled to capitalize on some things. Our defense kind of wore down and just kind of fell apart.”
Sims complimented the FHSU coaching staff and the atmosphere at Lewis Field Stadium.
“I’ll be honest, this is the first time I’ve been here for a Fort Hays State football game; I’ve been here for a high school game before," Sims said. "I was really impressed with the entire environment and the way it got set up. The coaching staff does a great job. There’s a reason Fort Hays State won the conference championship the last two years.”
D.J Hickman and Charles Tigner combined for 177 yards on the ground. Hickman had 90 yards on 16 carries with a touchdown while Tigner ran for 87 on 17 attempts.
Linebacker Drew Harvey had 12 tackles for Fort Hays with two sacks.
Tigers All-American kicker Dante Brown connected on three of four field goals attempts. He made a pair of 41-yarders in the first quarter, missed one from 45 yards out right before halftime and knocked in an 18-yarder in the fourth quarter. Brown moved into a tie for all-time field goals made at Fort Hays with 37, matching Wes Simoneau's mark.
Creal-Musgray was called for targeting in the second quarter but the call was reversed after the officials reviewed the video at halftime, allowing Creal-Musgray to return for the second half.
The Tigers face Central Oklahoma (2-2) on the road at 1 p.m. next Saturday in Edmond.
"I kept yelling, 'Back on track, boys,' when we got into the locker room," Kreutzer said. "We've got to ride this momentum."