HAYS (TNS) — Until the Tigers see that zero on the board, the defensive unit for the Fort Hays State University football team isn't going to rest.
It might be almost scary to think that unit believes it hasn't played its best game.
But the way the No. 7 ranked Tigers played Saturday against in-state rival Emporia State University at Lewis Field Stadium, it's hard to argue the Tigers didn't go ahead and pitch the shutout they've been craving all season.
It will be recorded as a 34-7 victory, pushing the Tigers to nine wins for the first time in program history, but the final score hardly was indicative of how much FHSU dominated.
Bottom line, "defense just played a hell of a game," Tiger sophomore Kolt Trachsel said. "Not until we see that zero on the clock, we're not going to say we pitched one out. But besides that one drive, we played a hell of a game."
The Tigers contained one of the MIAA's top scoring offenses to seven points, held the Hornets to just 223 yards of total offense, and kept the visitors off the scoreboard until the final six minutes when the game already was well in hand.
"They got after them, gave us some short fields," Tiger coach Chris Brown said of his defense. "They're all on the same page, understand what's going on.
"They just play hard for one another. They just fly around and make plays."
The Tigers even came away with a fourth-down stop at the goal line in the second half, had six tackles for loss, three sacks and an interception that put the finishing touches on the 9-0 mark.
Not to be outdone, the FHSU offense put up a big night as well, though it seemed to be in a bit of a lull after taking a 7-0 lead on its first possession.
The Tigers forced a punt on Emporia State's opening drive, then marched down the field to score on an 8-yard pass from junior Jacob Mezera to senior tight end J.J. Lewis, the Liberal product's first score this season. Senior running back Kenneth Iheme was a motor on the first drive, a 10-play, 88-yard possession that took 4 minutes, 34 seconds.
"Our O-line was great," Iheme said. "They make it easy for me."
It was the first of many busy drives for the Tiger senior, who again had a huge game, rushing for 146 yards and catching a team-best seven passes for 62 yards and a score. The 146 pushed Iheme to 1,029 for the season.
After the opening score, though, the Tigers had two potential TD drives stall in the second quarter and settled for a pair of Brandon Brown field goals to lead 13-0 at halftime.
"We just have to get rid of those lulls," Coach Brown said. "I don't expect us to score every time, but at least get a couple first downs, get some field position."
The Tigers did just that in the third quarter and seized all the momentum coming out of intermission. Senior receiver Tyler Bacon scored his second career touchdown on the opening drive, a catch-and-run of 68 yards. Minutes later, Iheme was in the end zone from 25 yards on a catch-and-run and cut-back to the middle.
"It was us just finishing and doing our jobs," Iheme said of the burst. "Second half, we knew if we came out hot, doing what we're supposed to do, it would be a good half for us."
Sophomore running back Charles Tigner added a 2-yard run early in the fourth quarter that capped FHSU's longest scoring drive of the season -- 99 yards. Iheme had a 54-yard run on the drive, and junior Monterio Burchfield had an over-the-shoulder catch for a first down to eventually set up the score.
"Our kids really stepped up when we needed them to and made plays," Coach Brown said.
Mezera finished 26 of 36 for 326 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Lewis caught five passes for 36 yards and the score. Tigner finished with 99 rushing yards on 13 touches. Despite the 583 yards of offense, the Tigers know that still can be better as well.
"We haven't just completely played a full four quarters. But once we get that together, the sky is the limit for us," Iheme said.
And with the win, the Tigers now are the only unbeaten team in the MIAA. Defending national champion and No. 1 ranked Northwest Missouri State University suffered its first loss Saturday, falling 20-10 at Pittsburg State University. The Tigers travel to Maryville, Mo., in Week 10, a game against the Bearcats that likely will decide the 2017 MIAA championship.
"This matchup is still going to be pretty hyped -- still a big game for us," Trachsel said of the game against the Bearcats. "We just need to listen to coaches and get the job done."