It might seem hard to believe one stat line could make the difference in the Fort Hays State University football team’s first playoff appearance in more than 20 years.
But one stat told the story for both sides after a disappointing showing for the Tigers in a 31-21 loss to Ferris State (Mich.) University on Saturday at Lewis Field Stadium — the first playoff game at home in FHSU’s program history.
The visiting Bulldogs ran 31 more plays than the Tigers and controlled field position all game, knocking the MIAA champs out of the playoffs a few games short of their ultimate goal.
The Tigers’ season ended at 11-1.
FHSU seventh-year head coach Chris Brown summed it up the best he could.
“They had 86 plays and we had only 55,” he said. “Our defense got tired. They got worn down.”
Simple, but accurate.
Ferris State, making its fourth straight trip to the playoffs, used a distinct size advantage on the line to stay on the field for nearly 38 minutes in the game, wearing down an FHSU defense that was one of the best through an 11-0 run in the MIAA.
The Bulldogs put up 460 yards of offense and handily controlled the clock.
“We were getting tired, but you get tired in the game and you expect it,” said Tiger junior linebacker Jose Delgado. “So you can’t make that an excuse.
“We’ve got to keep going. We were tired, but it’s no excuse for letting up.”
Ferris State had the ball so long due in part to the fact FHSU had trouble moving the ball all game.
Ferris State punted on its first and second possessions, but FHSU started at its own 2- and 3-yard lines, respectively, and never could muster much.
Tiger senior running back Kenneth Iheme, who had more than 1,200 rushing yards during the season, couldn’t find a gap to run through the entire first half. He constantly was swallowed up.
“We just weren’t able to get on some key blocks and set it up sometimes,” the senior from Wichita said. “They didn’t do anything we didn’t expect, just tonight we didn’t happen to execute as well as we usually do.”
And it showed throughout the first half. Ferris State struck first. After going 61 yards on 14 plays and chewing up 4:59, the Bulldogs got a 28-yard field goal. Two minutes later and after a long pass play, the Bulldogs bit again, scoring on a 3-yard run by Jahaan Brown.
“I kind of challenged the O-line this week to turn it up another notch,” said Brown, who had 17 rushes for 57 yards and a pair of scores.
FHSU’s biggest play of the game — while it was still a game — came on the Tigers’ opening possession of the third quarter. With FHSU trailing 10-0, Iheme broke through the line and slipped out of a tackle, sprinting for a 66-yard score. After that, the next three Tiger possessions started from their own 8, 4 and 12-yard lines.
The Bulldogs stuffing the run made the Tigers one-dimensional.
“Punt team backed Fort Hays State up a lot,” said Ferris State coach Troy Annese. “I thought we held the run game down, and we kept everything in front. We didn’t give up the big plays.”
Tiger junior quarterback Jacob Mezera had an efficient game, completing 23 of 37 passes for 170 yards and a late score to junior Monterio Burchfield. But Mezera never could find the spark.
“We put ourselves in bad situations. We were backed up at times, but we work on those situations every week in practice,” the FHSU coach said. “We put our defense in a bad spot all day with field position.”
And the Ferris State offense was able to capitalize on a worn-out Tiger defense. The Bulldogs scored on a 3-yard run and a 19-yard pass from Reggie Bell to Malik Taylor in the third. Then Brown scored on a 3-yard run to start the fourth, and Ferris State had a 31-7 lead.
“They were a solid offense. They had some big guys up there, so it was tough to get around them,” Delgado said. “We just didn’t play like we should have, like we’re used to. They’re a good team, and we just didn’t play that well.”
Iheme started a rally that made the score more respectable, but the rally was far from enough. He broke loose for an 81-yard score to cap his day with 162 yards on 14 carries. He was the only Tiger to finish with positive yards. Backup Charles Tigner was held out of the game after suffering an injury in the season finale. FHSU also was without starting offensive lineman Pat Kelly due to injury.
Ferris State, the No. 4 seed in Super Region 3, will take on Harding, the No. 7 seed, that has scored back-to-back upsets.