One loss can put you behind the eight-ball in the MIAA, and the Fort Hays State Tigers find themselves in that situation following last week’s season-opening heartbreaker at Central Missouri.
But while the path back to MIAA title contention can seem daunting with an early loss, the Tigers can look back to last year for inspiration.
Fort Hays suffered a loss in Week 2 to Missouri Western a year ago and had another setback in Week 5 at Emporia State, but FHSU used a late-season push to claim a share of the conference title.
“Last season we had our backs against the wall too,” said FHSU senior defensive back Hayden Kreutzer. “It really comes down to what kind of team we’re going to have this year and the attitude and how we move forward from this loss.
“We got kicked in the teeth. We’re going to find out what team we’ve got.”
The Tigers will look to start digging out of the early-season hole in their home opener against Missouri Western at 7 p.m. Thursday at Lewis Field Stadium.
“Our backs are against the wall,” Tigers coach Chris Brown said. “We’ve got one loss already and in this conference one loss can sometimes cost you a conference championship — not the playoffs, but sometimes a conference championship. Now we got to hope that we win out and somebody beats UCM. Our kids have to regroup.”
Fort Hays slipped 14 spots to No. 25 in the American Football Coaches Association Division II poll after Central Missouri scored two touchdowns in the last 5:35 to hand FHSU a 34-30 loss last Thursday in Warrensburg, Mo.
“After watching the game, they know got to correct the mistakes this week and the upcoming weeks,” Brown said. “But we’ve got a good group of kids. They understand what’s at hand. They don’t want to be the group that sets us back. They want to be the group that continues to do great things here at Fort Hays. I know they’re going to work their tails off, I know they’re going to get their mistakes corrected. We just got to play good football.”
Brown said he thought the Tigers let their guard down when leading by nine points in the fourth quarter against UCM.
“We’ve got to learn how to finish people off,” he said. “When we’ve got them down we’ve got to have a killer instinct and finish people off and not relax. I think we relaxed a little bit on Thursday and that’s something you can’t do in a football game.”
FHSU will also look to finish off drives after settling for three field goals in the first half against UCM.
“We know we’re the type of offense that can put up 40-something points a game if we’re all in,” said FHSU receiver Layne Bieberle. “We’ve just got to learn from those red-zone mistakes that we made.”
Missouri Western gave perennial power Northwest Missouri a scare last week but fell 45-35 to the Bearcats in St. Joseph, Mo.
Griffons quarterback Wyatt Steigerwald went 14 of 28 through the air for 270 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions and also ran for a couple of touchdowns.
Deven Holmes, Shamar Griffin and Damen Wheeler Jr. all had more than 70 yards receiving against Northwest, and Western running back Markel Smith ran for 97 yards on 13 carries.
“They’re just solid,” Brown said. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes. They were able to establish a little bit of a run against Northwest, which is usually pretty hard, but they were able to get some rushing yardage (149 yards).”
“They don’t do anything crazy concept wise that we really have to change a lot for, it’s just going out there and playing football,” Kreutzer added. “Lining up, knowing your job, knowing your responsibility and doing it every single play and playing to the best of your ability.”
Brown said the Tigers sustained one long-term injury in the opener, with sophomore defensive back Jhimon Preston expected to miss four to six weeks.
“We’ll get him back here soon, but it’s the next guy in,” Brown said. “I feel confident in the guys we put in for Jhimon now and they’ll be able to get the job done.”