HAYS — For the past few weeks, fans of the Fort Hays State University football team have been talking to members of the team about the potential unbeaten matchup with top-ranked and defending national champion Northwest Missouri State.
It’s great to see so many excited, senior Tiger tight end J.J. Lewis said, but he has to remind people there’s still a long way to go to make that happen.
Four quarters to be exact. And don’t think for a second unbeaten and No. 7 ranked FHSU is overlooking in-state rival and MIAA foe Emporia State University — the opponent for Saturday’s 2 p.m. kick at Lewis Field Stadium.
FHSU and Northwest Missouri State have separated themselves from the pack in the MIAA and right now are the frontrunners for presumable NCAA Division II playoff spots out of the conference.
In the MIAA, though, as it’s been repeated over and over, any team can do down on any given week.
“That’s a great lineup, and what you expect,” Lewis said of the potential top 10 matchup next week. “You want Kobe and LeBron to meet up in the finals, but each team has to do their job and get there.”
That sets the tone for Saturday’s game.
FHSU, already 8-0 for the first time in school history, earned the No. 3 ranking in Super Region 3. The top seven teams at the end of the year earn playoff nods.
But, the Tigers know a loss to Emporia State (4-4) at home would severely jeopardize that chance. And taking it Emporia State lightly would be a mistake. The Hornets were ranked in the top five nationally in the preseason, and are just two plays from sitting 6-2 ahead of Saturday’s matchup.
“They’re a great team,” Tiger junior quarterback Jacob Mezera said.“You can’t take anyone for granted. It’s Emporia State this week. Hopefully, we can take care of business and go on from there.”
FHSU is coming off one of its most complete games in a 38-10 at Missouri Western State last week. In that contest, FHSU scored in the air, on the ground and even recorded a defensive score out of the gate to take a 7-0 lead. Tiger coach Chris Brown said it’s a sign the team is peaking, something it needs to be doing at this point, though the offense had a bit of a lull in the second quarter.
“I think it’s getting closer,” Brown said. “Defensively, we played really well and played hard for four quarters. Offensively, we just kind of sputtered here and there.”
Still, the 38 points was enough to keep the Tigers’ average at 34.9 points per contest (second in the MIAA), while the FHSU defense is second only to Northwest Missouri State in points allowed. FHSU gives up just 15.8 points a night, while NW Missouri has given up just 7.3
The 10 points allowed last week to Missouri Western was the second game in a row the Griffons had just 10 points after they had scored at least 40 in four straight games. However, the Griffons were injured heavily offensively.
The Hornets are coming off a long weekend that resulted in a loss. ESU started its home game Saturday with Pittsburg State University, but the game was postponed due to weather and completed Sunday afternoon, a 27-10 loss where the Hornets allowed nearly 400 rushing yards to the Gorillas. It was the first time a team had even surpassed the 200-yard mark against the Hornets in two years.
Still, “they have four down linemen that are pretty solid,” Lewis said.
Offensively, though, the Hornets have been among the best, averaging 32.4 points per night and sit second in the conference with 478.3 yards per outing. ESU beat the Tigers 24-16 last season in Emporia.
“They can throw the ball, they can run the ball, and they get turnovers too,” Brown said. “It’s going to be a tough game. We have to be ready for a battle.”
The Tigers, of course, have Mezera and a backfield duo of senior Kenneth Iheme and the resurgent sophomore Charles Tigner. Iheme leads the conference in rushing with 883 yards and is second in rushing scores with 10. Since taking a back seat for two games, Tigner has been the two punch the last three outings, and has jumped to sixth in the conference with 485 yards and a pair of rushing scores.
They’ll attack and Emporia State defense that ranks near the bottom of the conference, surrendering 28.8 points per night and 418 yards per game. The FHSU offense has yet to put together a complete game, Mezera said, but knows it’s just a matter of time before they’re firing for four quarters.
“Deep down, everyone knows we have this under control,” the junior said. “We have the potential to beat any team we play right now.”
The Tigers will have to do that this week in order to set up the potential unbeaten top 10 matchup next week in Maryville, Mo. But that’s not the goal. The playoffs are the goal, and a win over Emporia State this week would go a long way in meeting that goal.
“There are four Division II’s in Kansas. We need to beat this last one to have our dominance in Kansas,” Brown said. “This is a playoff game for us. It starts this week. We can’t let this one slip away from us, because it can hurt us pretty bad.”