Fort Hays State's offensive line has helped pave the way for some big offensive outings for the Tigers recently, keeping quarterback Chance Fuller clean in the pocket and giving the running backs room to run.
FHSU will now look to win the battle in the trenches against an always formidable Northwest Missouri defensive line in Saturday's clash with the Bearcats at 2 p.m. at Lewis Field Stadium.
“Right now they’re really coming around to being the best, and right now is the time when they need to be at their best," FHSU coach Chris Brown said of the Tigers' O-line. "I’m excited about what they’re going to do this Saturday. It’s a good group for us right now.”
The 8-1 Bearcats are second in the MIAA in sacks with 31 and rank first in rushing defense, allowing just over 90 yards per game on the ground.
Meanwhile, the Tiger O-line has surrendered just seven sacks — fewest in the conference this season.
“Our offensive line, I think our main goal is to keep our feet in the ground again early," Brown said. "Expect a quick twist or turn to try to get you off balance and throw you to the ground. Then after you get that initial surge, now let’s go play ball.
“We’ve got to be physical across the board.”
FHSU senior offensive lineman Nathan Hale said the Tigers have been clicking up front since the third week of the season. The Tigers have put up 145 points combined over their last three games against Pittsburg State, Nebraska-Kearney and Lincoln.
“I think we’re gelling now,” Hale said. “I don’t know what was happening first couple weeks. I feel like we’ve gelled pretty well since spring. I don’t know what the problem was at the beginning of the season, but we’re definitely gelling now. We’re definitely in our groove.”
Nebraska-Kearney handed Northwest its lone loss of the season, edging the Bearcats 24-17 on Oct. 19 in Kearney.
“Northwest did make some mistakes but Kearney took advantage of all those mistakes that Northwest made," Brown said. "(Kearney) played hard, played physical and aggressive. I think that’s what you got to do with Northwest. You’ve got to play just as physical as they are or even more physical. I think we have the team to do that. I think we can be a very, very physical football team.
"I don’t think we’ve put on the field what we could be yet, and hopefully this is the week that we really turn it on and show the physicality we can play with.”
Brown said the Tigers (7-2) will have to prove they can run the ball against Northwest, which ranks first in the MIAA in scoring defense, giving up just 18.8 points per game. FHSU ranks second in that category, allowing 21.2 points a game.
"We have to (establish the running game)," Brown said. "Watching film and looking at the things they're doing, there's room to run. It's just that one of their defensive linemen always makes somebody fall off the block; he rips off of it and makes the tackle. We've just got to be solid in our blocking game and give the backs some movement and just a little bit of room to run."
It's a must-win game for the Tigers' playoff hopes. FHSU, which earned one-point wins at Northwest Missouri in each of the last two matchups with the Beatcats, sits 10th in the Super Region 3 rankings and will need to climb three spots over the last two weeks to reach the playoffs for a third straight season. Northwest is ranked No. 7 in the region.
"We just got to take care of business and do what we're supposed to do," Brown said. "There's a plan in place. God has a plan for everything and if it's getting into the playoffs, then it's getting into the playoffs. If it's not, it's not. But we got to worry about taking care of ourselves."