WARRENSBURG, Mo. — The two-time defending MIAA champion Fort Hays State Tigers had Central Missouri on the ropes and seemingly delivered the knockout blow.
With Fort Hays protecting a nine-point lead with under six minutes left, FHSU's Jonathan Williams and Sheldon Schmidt combined for a third-down sack of UCM quarterback Brook Bolles at the UCM 13.
But the Mules found new life on the next play — a 22-yard run off a fake punt by Zach Davidson — and dominated the rest of the game, rallying for a 34-30 season-opening victory over the Tigers on Thursday night at Walton Stadium.
After the fake punt, Bolles hit Shae Wyatt for a 65-yard touchdown pass with 5:35 left to cut the Tigers’ lead to 30-28. The Tigers turned the ball over on the ensuing possession after FHSU quarterback Chance Fuller was ruled to have fumbled the ball instead of getting off an incompletion, giving the Mules the ball at the UCM 45 with 2:46 left.
The Mules grabbed their first lead of the game on a 36-yard touchdown pass to Cameron Saunders to go up 34-30 with 1:33 remaining.
Fort Hays failed to move the chains on their final possession after the Mules batted away passes on third and fourth down to take over at the Tiger 29 with 1:10 left. A UCM first down then sealed the game.
“It always is (tough to get momentum back) when you get stunned like that,” FHSU senior bandit Tanner Hoekman said of the fake punt. “But it’s going to happen — that’s football. We have to know that it can happen and we have to bounce back from it, and obviously we didn’t do that. So that’s something we’ve got to work on. If something like that happens, we have to get back on our horse and be ready to roll.”
The Tigers scored the first 13 points of the game and led 16-7 at halftime, but FHSU coach Chris Brown lamented FHSU’s missed opportunities offensively, with Fort Hays settling for three Dante Brown field goals in the first half.
Fort Hays finished with 470 yards of offense while giving up 516 to the Mules, which avenged a down-to-the-wire loss to the Tigers last year in the season opener.
“I thought we did some good things on both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively, but when you look at the whole spectrum of things … when we get in the red zone we can’t settle for field goals,” Chris Brown said. “We score touchdowns in those situations, we might be up 21-7, maybe even 28 going into halftime.
“On defense, we can’t give up the big play. We gave up three big plays and they all resulted in touchdowns, and that cost you the ball game. I’m not saying it was one side or the other, we just have to clean things up.”
UCM was scuffling offensively until Koby Wilkerson evaded a couple Tiger tacklers and broke loose for a 66-yard touchdown run to cut the FHSU lead to 13-7 in the second quarter. Dante Brown extended the lead to 16-7 with his third field goal.
The teams traded a pair of touchdowns to open the second half. Bolles ran for a 10-yard score and threw an 11-yard TD pass to Wilkerson, while the Tigers found the end zone on Fuller's 14-yard pass to Hazlett and a 1-yard plunge from Te'Corey Tutson, putting the Tigers back up nine early in the fourth.
But Central seized the momentum after the fake punt and the Tigers never recovered.
"That was a great call on (UCM coach Jim) Svoboda part," Chris Brown said. "They're down deep in their territory and you never think it's going to happen, but we had the right call. We had a guy spying it, making sure it wasn't going to happen, and the guy just didn't do his job. We talk about it all the time with our guys — these games come down to special teams and doing things the right way. ... We'll watch film, get things cleaned up and hopefully get better from it."
The Tigers defense struggled to keep players on the field down the strectch with cramps becoming a problem.
"The fatigue part kind of hurts me because we hydrated like crazy all week long," Brown said. "I thought they'd be good but we had cramping and things like that. We conditioned like crazy through camp. Maybe I overdid it and they didn't get their legs back underneath them, but I felt we were in pretty good shape. I didn't think our kids would be tired but (Central Missouri) is a high-tempo offense and they did great things."
Fort Hays also lost defensive back Jhimon Preston to an injury in the first half.
Fuller threw for a career-high 333 yards, completing 27 of 42 passes with two touchdowns — a 27-yarder to Layne Bieberle on the Tigers' first drive and the 14-yarder to Harley Hazlett. Running back Charles Tigner had 65 yards rushing and 55 yards receiving.
Bieberle totaled 99 yards receiving on four catches.
Dante Brown's field goals were from 20, 51 and 36 yards, with the 51-yarder marking a career best.
Bolles went 14 of 26 through the air for 271 yards and three touchdowns after throwing for just 52 yards in the first half.
The Tigers will look to rebound in their home opener against Missouri Western on Thursday at Lewis Field Stadium, knowing they won't be able to afford another setback in order to contend for a third straight MIAA title.
"We definitely dug ourselves a hole but we've been there before," Hoekman said. "It's going to take the seniors stepping up to get everybody on board and let everybody know that we can come back out of this like we did last year."