An inexperienced unit at the beginning of the season, Fort Hays State's defense has been playing like a group of seasoned veterans the last three weeks.
The Tigers turned in a dominant defensive performance in a 19-3 homecoming victory over Emporia State in front 6,735 fans on Saturday night at Lewis Field Stadium.
FHSU (4-2) limited the Hornets (2-4) to 276 yards of offense and just 129 yards through the air, holding its opponent to seven points or fewer for the third straight game.
“I think guys are really starting to figure out what we’re doing,” Tigers’ coach Chris Brown said of the FHSU defense. “It was such a young group at the start of the season. Now they’re starting to get seasoned a little bit to what we’re doing defensively. And they’re playing hard, they’re playing physical and they’re playing faster and they’re not thinking so much.
“I’m proud of those guys for the way they stepped up tonight because that’s a very good Emporia offense and we did pretty much a good job of shutting them down.”
FHSU senior bandit Tanner Hoekman said it didn't take long for the newcomers to the defense to adapt this season.
“It’s always hard having all those new guys coming in for those first couple games, but now we’re starting to click and I’m really liking what I’m seeing,” Hoekman said.
The Tigers took a 16-0 lead into halftime on the strength of three Dante Brown field goals and a 23-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Hickman.
“That first half was awesome — the momentum from what (the defense) was doing, the momentum from what (the offense) was doing,” Hoekman said. “Everybody was just feeding off each other and that was an awesome thing to see.”
ESU’s defense kept FHSU in check after halftime, with the Tigers only able to muster a field goal from Brown.
The Tiger defense surrendered only a Clark Schoonover 24-yard field goal. Schoonover also missed a 29-yard attempt late in the third.
FHSU running back Charles Tigner ran for 111 yards on 22 carries while Hickman added 63 yards on 10 carries.
“We preached we got to establish the run this game,” Tigner said. “Once we know that we can establish the run, then we can open up everything else.”
Dante Brown knocked in field goals of 34, 31, 42 and 21 yards on the night. The Hornets forced the Tigers to settle for field goals on three drives inside the red zone.
“There’s still just a missed assignment here, a missed assignment there," coach Brown said of the Tigers' red-zone struggles. "We’ve got to start eliminating those missed assignments.
“A lot of it’s just execution. We’ve got to find a way to better execute in the red zone and make things happen for us.”
FHSU quarterback Chance Fuller went 19 of 29 through the air for 209 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. The Tigers finished with 392 yards of total offense.
“Playing a defense like that really helps your kids improve and makes them really think and understand every situation," Brown said. "I was proud of the way our offense played, I just wish we could’ve got some more points on the board.”
Linebacker Drew Harvey led the Tiger defense with 13 tackles while defensive back Hayden Kreutzer added 10. Hoekman snagged an interception late in the fourth quarter to seal it.
ESU quarterback Dalton Cowan completed 14 of 29 passes for 129 yards while rushing for 56 yards.
“He’s a tough kid to contain,” Brown said. “He does a good job of extending plays and making things happen. But if he did get out of the pocket, our linebackers or somebody was there to be in his face right away. I thought our our defensive line did a really good job of making him feel uncomfortable all night long. Maybe they didn’t get the sack, but at least they got the pressure to kind of get him moving around and get him uncomfortable.”
FHSU will play at Pittsburg State (5-1) next Saturday. The Gorillas fell 38-17 to Northwest Missouri on Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium to take their first loss.
“I thought we played more physical today,” Brown said. “I thought our guys played with a little bit more of an edge today. That’s something that we’re really working on, and hopefully that’s something we can still build off of.”